My ‘A’ race and only race that year was Ironman Malaysia located on the tropical island of Langkawi, an Island of the northeastern coast of Malaysia. Originally I was targeting Ironman Wales but due to a lack of accommodation and running out of time to train, we decided to head overseas and give Ironman Malaysia in November a go. I’d previously raced the Thailand half Ironman in Phuket and was keen to have another full-distance Ironman race in Asia. I was used to the heat being from Queensland, and my first ever event had been Cairns Ironman. But this year I was heading to the tropics after training in a much colder climate in the UK and Europe.
November is hot and humid in Malaysia so I’d need to spend a little time getting used to racing in the heat again. Europe wasn’t going to be the perfect place to train so we relocated to Vietnam for a 2 month prep stage so I could concentrate on perfecting my race in the tropical heat. Read about how that training went in my 1 and 2 month out training journals. Vietnamese food is good, but light, I was super lean for this race.
Cutting a long story short I had a great lead up and my training was spot on. The only real issue was that swimming training became difficult with the beach being off-limits due to storms and the public pool in Danang closing for winter. Getting from Danang to Hoi An, our base, wasn’t too hard, there was no pool for training open in Hoi An. Still, I had enough swim training and experience under my belt to think it wouldn’t hold me up in the race.
Getting to Langkawi and Our Base
Flying from Danang we had to change planes in Kuala Lumper at KLIA 2 for the short hop up to Malaysia’s northernmost island. Leaving in the afternoon we didn’t check in to our hotel till almost midnight after the extra hour time change was factored in. Too late, and after 2 months of being up at 4:30 am every morning it was to throw me out of sync more than I realised. Being late, dinner was unavailable and we headed to sleep.
Our 1 bedroom apartment was the perfect size to get sorted for the race. A big room where I could store all of my tri gear including the bike, a large balcony that overlooked the bay and two bathrooms. Unfortunately, while breakfast was included it was perhaps the worst breakfast I’d had the misfortune to ever see in a hotel. Food was going to be a major problem here on Langkawi.
Registration and Ironman Malaysia Expo
I love seeing the expos at Ironman races. It is where equipment companies advertise their new and usual products. From energy gels to $15,000 bikes, it is all on display. The Ironman Malaysia expo was much bigger than in Thailand and Wales the previous year.
AWA s (All World Athletes, I was one in 2017) normally get a separate line up for the registration process. With few people achieving this status it makes the registration quicker. Unfortunately that didn’t happen here. It was still quick and before long I was getting my goodie bag which included a nice new Ironman branded backpack.
The big shock was that my weight had plummeted to 69.1 kg which was about 2-3 kg too low. When I’m training hard I always struggle to keep the weight on as I burn so many calories, but this was worrying and being so close to race day I was concerned I couldn’t replace that weight here in Langkawi.
Pre Race Routine and Bike Racking
With two separate transitions getting organised was a little bit tricky but Malaysia organised this well. I did the tour of T2 where I’d drop my bike and start the run straight after the registration to save time in coming back to the exhibition centre.
The area was a massive building very much like an aircraft hanger with enough room to rack the 2000+ bikes in full air conditioned comfort. T2 was standard, in that we would ride up and pass off our bikes to bike grabbers who would rack our bikes for us. From the entrance we made our way to get our run gear, change and then head out for the run which would see us visit the air conditioned building 3 times.
Thursday night, 2 nights before the race and the carb load/welcome dinner was held in the exhibition centre ballroom. Most full ironman races have this, although Wales gives you a local restaurant voucher to spend time with family and friends wherever you choose. The dinner wasn’t overly impressive and the catering could have been better but I never expect much cuisine-wise in Malaysia. Dinner here was no different.
Having a hire car gave me the opportunity to drive the bike course before the actual race, which was great. An Australian Ironman friend and I did this before the dinner and we were glad we did as some of the hills were a lot steeper and corners much more dangerous than we’d been led to believe from the course map. The elevation also seemed significantly higher than listed. That was OK as I’m a good hill climber.
For the Friday before the race I took it easy but still had to drive to the other end of the island to the swim start and T1 to rack my bike and drop off my bike bag. I dropped off my run bag at T2 on the way. Both of these drops were straightforward and besides the driving, this didn’t take long at all. The trick is to walk the transitions as you’d race them so you know where to go on race day. With 2000+ bags you don’t want to be searching around and wasting time and energy on this.
Making sure I had enough food and good quality food was the hardest part or pre-race prep on Langkawi. I was struggling by this stage and really should have found a 5 star hotel and gone and got a big feed. Lessons learned and for Wales in 2018 I won’t make the same mistakes.
We had an early night after having one last big meal ( we found Egyptian take away, the hotel food was inedible and we struggled to find good food anywhere on Langkawi) and getting all of my food and breakfast ready for race morning. I also put on my race number tattoos now to save time and hassle in the morning, knowing that they rarely come off unless you scrub them. Some triathletes have lots of trouble sleeping before a race, I usually don’t. Apparently the sleep two nights before the race is the most important, not so much the night before. Both nights were good sleep wise.
Race Day Ironman Malyasia
This is how my race day looked, the day’s schedule, for Ironman Malaysia.
My alarm was set for 4 am but I was already up and brewing my first cup of coffee. My race morning routine is standard across most races now. I’ll have 2 cups of coffee, cheese, hummus and some milk. I’d prefer to have a few boiled eggs too, but with no facilities in our apartment, ( it was listed as having a kitchen, it actually had a rusty toaster oven) I didn’t get those this time. I eat just enough to get me going into the bike leg but not enough to sink me on the swim.
Transition opened at 5 am but I’d only need 10 minutes in there to put my water and nutrition on my bike and make sure everything was in order. With this in mind we left at 5 am to drive up to the swim start and transition. As is the case with 2000+ people and their friends and family trying to park right outside the start we parked down the road and walked to the start. This meant my wife wouldn’t get blocked in when the race started.
My bike was fine and I had a few minutes to put on bottles and nutrition. Wheels were already at 100 psi and everything was good to go. I retraced my steps back from the change tent to bike and then walked out one last time.
A few pre race selfies with friends and family and we were good to go. Looking at those photos now I can see my visible drop in weight from Vietnam to the race start.
Race Starts With a Little Swim
Like nearly all races now it was a staggered self-seeding start. I went with the 1 hour 15 minutes group which was nearly half the competitors. The gaps between start groups weren’t small enough, Wales was much better with groups divided into 10 minute intervals. Competitors were too bunched up meaning there were slower swimmers and faster swimmers in the same area at the same time. Plus a lot of people at Malaysia weren’t seeding correctly.
Athletes were released at 4 people a second, so we had clear water to start but unfortunately, those slower people had snuck in ahead and I was now quite literally swimming over people. The pointy end of an Ironman swim isn’t for the faint of heart or weaker swimmer.
Swimming in a nice rhythm it was about 400 m from shore on the first lap that disaster struck. My left leg cramped up from the calf all the way up to the quad. In the last 3 months I’d had no cramps of any kind and now only 1.5 km into the race I was dragging my leg through the water. I exited for the next lap with a shocking time of 38 minutes and stretched out my leg. It wasn’t right and the next 1.9 km was just as slow with the right leg now joining in and I exited the swim in a utterly gutted time of 1 hour 17 minutes with a cramped up left leg. My race buddy, Damien, was already heading out on to the bike and I didn’t think I’d see him until the run.
T1 And The Bike Leg
I headed into T1 and got changed into my bike gear and tried to stretch my legs out. I ran off towards my bike confident that my legs would be OK once I started my nutrition and pedaling.
I felt flat as I headed out of T1 and immediately we were into the first hill. Not a problem as I started to make up time in the field. I was feeling strong and just trying to get sorted for the bike leg ahead. The cramps had dissipated and I was starting to get into my groove.
55 Km in, I reached the two big hills that dominate the race. I overtook Damien here and was surprised as he is a great cyclist. By this stage there were people from both the full and half ironman who were pushing their bikes up these hills which I’d never seen previously in a race. Heading over the hills the course takes a sharp right hand turn at the bottom of the last hill and hits a small steep 10 % incline gradient and as I stood up both quads locked up totally and I couldn’t move.
So I slowly lost speed up that hill with locked legs. I attached my shoes to the pedals quite tight as I leave them on my bike after the ride meaning I couldn’t even get out of the pedals. I forced myself to sit down hard and my legs unlocked as I came dangerously close to falling over. I pushed on to the top of the hill and started gliding down the other side.
From here on in I had over 100 km to go and knew I couldn’t push hard anymore or my legs would lock up instantly. Unbeknownst to me when I sat down hard I’d pushed my saddle down nearly an inch so now the bike didn’t even fit. I had to keep a high cadence up and in an easy gear so that my legs would be ok. It was here I knew it would be a slow tough bike leg. My wattage dropped from an average 200 watts down to around 120-130 watts and my speed dropped from a 32 km average all the way to 29 km.
Another big difference in this race was that the race didn’t have closed roads except for the hills area so we were on the side with trucks and buses overtaking. Not ideal when you’re in the aero position and trying to go flat out. That’s another big reason that I’d be hesitant to do this race again. While there were no problems or accidents that I know of, doing it this way is asking for trouble.
I still had one more lap on these killer hills and I knew I couldn’t push or stand up. I did get around smehow because I didn’t come this far to fail. I knew that if I got off my bike I may not get back on. The last 40 km was frustrating as I knew I had the fitness to push but the cramps put paid to it. Everyone started to go past me and I rolled into T2 with a 6 hour 13 minutes 180.40 km ride. Slower than Wales which had over a thousand more metres of climbing. I think that highlights just how tough and slow I was going. In training and not pushing all out, I’d still manage 32 km an hour for 175 km with no problems, making this race worse than my training rides.
T2 And The Run To The Finish
I always leave my shoes and socks attached to the bike when I finish the bike leg as it saves time and carpet mats ensure your feet don’t get cut or hurt. Going barefoot also helps loosen up any tight muscles in your feet before you put on running shoes and smash out a marathon.
I actually managed to get off my bike without falling over and my legs seemed to be ok. Running is mainly hamstrings over quads so I was rather hopeful and thinking I could still get a good run in after two very ordinary legs.
Heading out of into the Malaysian heat I was clocking sub 4 minute kms which was too fast and I dialed it back to 4:35 which was good till the 4 km mark where I stopped to stretch. I had little twinges that I hoped I could shake before they became too strong. Continuing along I felt the quads tightening as each foot hit the ground and disaster struck at km 7 when both legs totally locked up again and I did a slow motion fall onto the pavement. It would have been funny if it wasn’t in the race and I didn’t have 35 km left to run.
There I was like a turtle on its back. I couldn’t stand and there was nothing to help me up. A half ironman competitor stopped and helped massage and stretch my legs and eventually hauled me to my feet. He ran off at my insistence as he was in danger of not meeting the cut off for his race. I was thankful for the help and now had to work out how to cover 35 km before midnight. That gave me enough hours but I didn’t want my wife and kids waiting all that time.
Off I shuffled and heading past the finish line on the first lap there was no sign of them. At this rate I wouldn’t be back for the next lap for well over 90 minutes. Damien went past me at this point, I called out but he didn’t hear and I realised that my voice going as well.
It is here that you find out just what you’re made of. Having a perfect race with everything going well and hitting pbs as I did in Wales, there isn’t any doubt or worry about finishing. Here in Langkawi it was a very different story as I shuffled along having taken the average km per hour up to 7.5 min km from the 12.5 when I went down. Still it was almost double the target of 4.5 min km and it would be my worst race of all time.
The rest of the run was a cross between a slow run and a walk. I just kept hammering away at the distance watching it slowly disappear on my watch. The crowd was great in parts and absent in other places. I was going to be finishing in the dark so had fluro bands to wear.
I saw my wife and the boys on the last lap and they could see I wasn’t in a good way. Bless them they still waited for me to finish.
Heading out of the exhibition centre for the last time I caught up with Damien who’d had issues with his hips and wasn’t having a great race either. He had also had major problems with food availability on Langkawi. We basically walked the last 4 km back at 12.5 minute km. By this stage my legs were in total agony and my mouth was so dry and painful. My throat was on fire.
We decided to run the last 100 metres into the finish although I looked more like I was fitting not running. Ironman Malaysia 2017 was finished with a 13 hour 50 minute race time. Official times of 1 hour 18 minutes for the swim, 6 hours and 12 minutes for the bike and a shocking run of 6 hours and 9 minutes. T1 and T2 added another slow 10 minutes but that was irrelevant in the scheme of things today.
I couldn’t even undo my laces or stand up once I sat down so was very appreciative of Damien being able to help after the race. My wife and kids were locked out of the finishers area and were worried and frustrated at not being able to help, The after race food options were poor and most food items were out of stock by the time we finished. I didn’t care too much as I couldn’t swallow by this stage. I did manage an ice cream and some sports drink.
Then it was a long shuffle to the car to drive back to our hotel and be helped straight into bed after a shower.
Race Recap and Lessons Learned
Clearly this wasn’t a race to remember for the results but in terms of lessons it was a huge race and combined with Wales from 2016 I can find and eliminate the weaknesses and issues with both my races and training.
Diet and Weight Race Week
My biggest issue was diet and making sure I got the right balance both in training, before the race, in the weekend leading up to the race and during the race itself. Being a chef, during working hours I get all the best food and hit nutrition optimally, outside of work it can often slip by the wayside.
The food in Vietnam was brilliant and I thrived on that, but once we travelled it really became a struggle as the Malaysian diet is poor. Finding food in Malaysia was hard. I wasn’t eating the quality calorie-rich foods that I need when burning close to 4000 calories a day in the few days before the race and too often we were eating in MacDonalds or Starbucks because we couldn’t find much else. With such limited (and falsely advertised) kitchen equipment, the supermarkets didn’t help much either. Don’t get me wrong, I love Starbucks, all junk food, but it’s not what you should be eating on race week.
Wales was much better food-wise and I could manage to eat enough of the right foods for that race and the results spoke for themselves. As a side note, I weighed 68 kg the day after the Ironman Malaysia race and was shockingly skinny. I need to be, and stay at, 72-73 kg race weight. My body fat is usually well under 10 % which is fine.
My second major issue was my swim, which hasn’t increased in speed in the last 5 years. Sure I don’t get out of breath or have any trouble swimming the distance, but speed wise I’m not tapping my potential here at all. Vietnam didn’t help when a month out as I struggled to find anywhere to swim but I know that I don’t enjoy it as much and subconsciously put it last on the list. That will change this year without fail.
Strength training was always a part of my training but for Ironman Malaysia I didn’t do any and I think that was a major oversight. Especially as I get older the benefits far out way time taken away from the other three disciplines. Doing specific swim exercises will also help the swim segment. I’m already back in the gym 3 weeks after the race and the results are speaking for themselves.
I’ve made this pin if you’d like to pin it for later.
Thanks for reading my race report for Ironman Malaysia. A big thanks to family and friends that got me to the start line and cheered me on throughout the race. Looking forward to next year and I’m sure it will be bigger and better.
Ironman Malaysia hasn’t released dates for 2023 that I know of, for either the full Ironman or 70.3 yet. I’m not sure if that is due to planning or there are other more serious issues involved but stay tuned to see what happens. We have a full post covering travels in Malaysia if you need further information.