DUATHLONS hurt more than triathlons.
So sayeth Startline Bob. But then again, I’m speaking only from my own experience of racing duathlons, whose number I can count on one hand; so don’t take my word for it. Just do me a favor and continue reading. Please.
A duathlon is one event I would most certainly classify under the heading ‘Efficient Exercise’ as it provides, within a relatively compact time frame, the following benefits: a) an excellent cardio-vascular workout; b) a severe lower body muscular stress challenge; c) a top-notch mechanical coordination exercise; and d) an uncompromising test of one’s mental resolve.
Not to be confused with the Olympic event that is the biathlon (a combination of skiing and shooting), a duathlon is a run-bike-run competition that can be as short as a 3k-20k-3k event or as long as a 20k-80k-10k ultra variety. A duathlon is definitely not for the faint of heart, literally, as it pushes heart rates to levels enough to give you an out-of-body experience, as much as it thrusts the rest of your body to limits of pain and endurance from start to finish.
The Unilab Active Health Duathlon held in SCTEX South Clark Exit last September 9 was one such suffer-fest. Okay, it was a suffer-fest for me, at least.
Starting out from Manila with carpool mates Ronnie and Alisa at half past three in the morning, it didn’t look like a particularly good day for racing. The weather en route to the race venue was nothing short of discouraging, with the heavy rain giving our roof-mounted bikes an unexpected bath. There was some trepidation about whether the race would push through at all, but just as we began to fear the worse, the rain suddenly stopped after we crossed the last major tollgate. It was as if a switch was thrown that suddenly shut off the waterworks from heavens. Maybe the organizers hired the same group that dispersed the rain clouds at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, just to ensure clear skies for the opening day ceremonies. Or maybe not.
We arrived at a muddy parking lot, and were soon through the motions of preparing for the race with enough time to get dressed, rack our bikes, get numbered, potty stop, and warm up. The race area was teeming with race participants, sponsors, fotogs, and supporters in the form of family, friends, and non-participating teammates. Ubiquitous sponsor booths were arranged neatly in a row by the roadside, along with the requisite sampling and photo opportunities with nubile promo girls that are standard fare for such events.
Having done my last duathlon (albeit of a shorter distance) just six months ago, I was looking forward to this one in particular, as it featured a longer course that was completely closed to traffic, and because the bike leg was to traverse a portion of the SCTEX, one of the few remaining long-distance roads in the country where potholes and asphalt patchwork have not become commonplace - yet. In short, the SCTEX is a cyclist’s heaven and haven, if only it was open throughout the year — and only to cyclists.
With over 680 participants for the sprint, relay and long course races, this was a well-attended affair, by any measure. The start line air was filled with casual banter and congenial greetings among familiar faces, which carried on through the countdown to the start of the race.
Once the blare from the starting horn faded and most of us had begun striding into the first of six kilometers of the run leg, I noticed that an eerie quiet had fallen on the pack. The sudden hush among the runners caused me to look around to see if there were any librarians around shushing anyone who dared say more than “runner on your left” or “excuse me.” I soon realized from the somber expressions of the runners nearest me that this was a serious race. Well, maybe to them, but I was determined to have fun today. As I pulled alongside friends Adel and Bic, I wondered aloud, “How come no one’s joking around? Everyone seems so serious.” Adel shot back with, “Why don’t we get it (the joking around) started then?” just as I threw an agreeing smile their way and ran ahead. The rest of the first leg, comprising two loops of 3 kilometers each, was run in relative silence. It was an unfamiliar space, which made me try to recall if the duathlons I had joined in previous years carried the same humorless and pensive weight about them.
Any duathlon veteran will tell you to save your legs by not gutting it out on the first run leg. Judging from the pace most of us were keeping, it seemed no one was heeding that good advice. I didn’t have to look at my watch to know that I was running faster than planned. Wait, did I even have a plan for this race? I could immediately tell from my labored breathing and the sudden dryness of my mouth and throat that this was not a pace I could comfortably sustain, but part of me said “Hey, it’s only six clicks. Don’t be a wuss.” Such is the psyche of the pseudo-Alpha male — though I wouldn’t know just how pseudo I was until two hours later.
The bike leg kicked off without much incident or fanfare, just the way it should, while the sun decided to come out of hiding and grace the course with ample amounts of sunshine. After mounting my bike and riding a short distance to the left of the tollgates, I soon found myself pedaling along the smooth SCTEX highway. The race organizers planned a relatively friendly 60k route that was kind to the racers, by putting most of the inclines going out and the reverse on the way back. Considering the route involved doing this three times, it was always a welcome reprieve each time I caught sight of the U-turn that would take me back and hopefully allow me to hitch my ride onto a tailwind for added speed.
The race marshals riding tandem on motorbikes and armed with video and digital cameras patrolled the entire stretch, judiciously calling out warnings and having erring cyclists pull over to serve the necessary penalty time as a result of drafting off other riders. There were pockets of hilly climbs combined with headwinds that slowed a number of us down, but not enough to take the wind from our sails. The rides back were much faster as most everyone latched onto the generous tailwinds and rode through the inclines with more speed and daring.
It was during the bike leg that I noticed a lot of friendly exchange and shouts of encouragement among the riders. It’s always a good thing to push each other with good-natured ribbing and genuine support. Teammates and competitors alike draw intangible strength from simple cheers of “Looking Strong”, “Go, (rider’s name),” and “Let’s Do This!”
On the third and last loop of the bike leg, my stomach let out an angry growl, groaning to be fed. Alas, having consumed my last of two energy gels just twenty minutes back, I soon realized that I had under provisioned my nutrition plan for this race. What to do? Aside from staving off more of the hollering from below by taking in more isotonic drink than water, there wasn’t much to do but just hunker down and finish the race. Yet another lesson learned in race preparation and readiness as a student of multi-sport racing.
In my limited experience doing duathlons, I’ve discovered that it’s the second run leg where most, if not all of the suffering happens. Coming off a bike leg that floods your legs with a torrent of lactic acid as you leave the second transition area, you only have two choices: keep running or fold up. Plus, there’s always the option to walk… wuss.
I could feel the familiar twinge running along my quads as I dismounted and ran towards the second transition to prepare for the second and final run leg. The first few strides out of the transition area triggered a mild panic, as I felt tiny spasms creeping along my upper thighs. It was then that I recalled the sage advice a friend once gave me in the middle of a somewhat trying city ride around the streets of Vancouver on a freezing cold, rainy day in March: Suck it up, Go!
Despite my leg muscles’ surprise audition for the New York City Ballet, pirouetting in every direction except straight ahead, and the voice in my head taunting me with a morale-boosting, “Go, Wuss, Go!” I continued along the 4k route with a resolve to finish the race without walking. Although I didn’t seem to be running at a fast clip, I felt a wave of nausea envelop me as I rounded the U-turn of the first of two 2k loops. My thought at that moment: Chuck Finish.
I’ve seen my fair share of chuck finishes, whether live or on video, and they’re never pretty. Chuck finishes involve the (often) involuntary act of losing your breakfast/lunch/dinner upon crossing the finish line due to the extraordinary physical effort exerted throughout the race and/or making a mad dash to cross the finish line to achieve a targeted finish time or beat the cut-off time. I’ve never had a chuck finish in all my years of racing; but if there ever would be one, I strongly felt at that moment that this race would give me my first-ever liquid laugh at the finish.
Sadly, whatever was left of my pride effectively held in that morning’s breakfast of corned beef pan de sal and pineapple juice along with the gels, isotonic drinks, and water I ingested during the race. I did succumb to walking a little, pouring cold water over my thighs and grabbing a cup of hydration, every time I passed the aid stations. But as I rounded the bend with some two hundred meters of concrete between me and the finish line, I zipped up my tri-top, straightened my flagging posture, and made a supreme effort to finish strong.
Crossing the line in fairly good time and beaming from ear to ear, I heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the heavens for a decent finish. The pain in my legs seemed to dissipate after the finisher’s medal was hung around my neck, as I grabbed bottles of water and isotonic drink on my way to join my teammates who were milling around and waiting for the rest to finish.
So where was The Big Hurt? Obviously, it made its grand entrance at the second transition and lingered throughout the second run leg. Where did it end? I can’t really say, because more of the hurt usually comes in the days that follow the race. But experience tells me that my recovery time from triathlons of comparable distances and difficulty are faster than that of duathlons. I’ll just have to wait then. And sometimes, the waiting is the hardest part.
* * *
Meanwhile, on the very same Sunday morning, roughly a hundred kilometers south of the Clark/SCTEX, a trail version of the duathlon was likewise concluding at the La Mesa Eco Park in Quezon City. From what I heard, it was mud, mud and more mud along the entire run-bike-run route. Participants were slipping and sliding all over the place, and not a few of them were close to punching the DNF (Did Not Finish) card. Now that is an entirely different world of hurt altogether.
But it sounds pretty inviting.