What an incredible Sunday! In the morning, I raced the Ironman 70.3 Turkey in a time of 5h:50min. The same evening, I found out at the award ceremony that I had qualified for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
OK, lets start from the beginning. Racing 70.3 Turkey was a last minute decision, I registered and did all the bookings only 4 weeks before the race. For just a moment I considered whether Turkey would be a good choice given the current “political climate” there, but I knew that the media news were exaggerated and mainly foreign propaganda, so took the decision to go ahead anyway. It turned out to be the right decision. Even in a declared state of “emergency”, everything was going on as usual and in the most peaceful manner. Moreover, the Turkish people are very friendly and are quite fond of India and its cinema, which seems to be popular there.
This is only the 2nd year of this race and is held in the small seaside resort town of Belek, set on the Turkish Riviera of the Mediterranean Ocean. The race venue is the luxurious and sprawling Gloria Golf Resort, whose owner Mr. Nuri Ozaltin was the person who brought Ironman into Turkey. Unfortunately, he passed away just two months before this year’s race. To honor him, we observed a moment of celebration before the race start, instead of a moment of silence. This felt much more appropriate and truly an honor to the man and his efforts.
I arrived In Belek on Friday afternoon, checked into my hotel, then went to the expo for registration and bib collection. The expo (also the finish) was the newly built Gloria Sports Arena, built by the same Gloria group. So the race start, T1 and T2 was the seaside Gloria Golf Resort which was 5 km away from Belek town centre, while the finish was the Gloria Sports Arena, 1 km from the town centre. There would be a lot of to and fro between the hotel and these two venues in the coming days!
Back from the expo, I assembled my bike only to find out that there was some problem with the seat post bolt. After a bit of fiddling around, I decided to take the bike the next morning to the expo where they usually have bike mechanics. However, I found a bike rental shop bang next to my hotel. The owner himself was a triathlete and he fixed the issue within no time. I asked him whether he is going to be racing as well, but he said “No, too many kilos, maybe next year”.
After a long long sleep, the next day, Saturday, I went to the expo for the race briefing, then back at the hotel, I setup my bike, T1 and T2 bags, took care of other logistics and preparations, then rode my bike to the start for bike check-in. Had an early dinner, set two alarms, and off I went to sleep again.
The race start was a relatively leisurely 8:00am. I woke up at 5:30, had a light breakfast, attended to “calls”, then walked to the expo to catch one their shuttles to the race start. I did some final bike prep, last-minute arrangements of the T1 and T2 bags and proceeded to the beach to do a swim warmup. A good 15 minutes of mostly frolicking around in the sea and some light swimming, before we were called out of the sea to line up for the start.
As with most triathlon races nowadays, the swim was to be a rolling start rather than a mass start. This means that 4-6 athletes are allowed to go every few seconds. No matter where you are in the rolling start, your time only starts when you pass over the timing mat on the beach. This is much more safe and anxiety-free method, especially for new swimmers. We lined up according to our expected (honest!) swim finish times (self seeding). There is no point in positioning yourself in the front – being swum over by over-aggressive and strong swimmers is not something you want to experience.
A melodious rendition of the Turkish national anthem, a moment of celebration for the late Mr.Nuri Ozaltin, and off we went, few at a time, as the line of triathletes snaked along the beach through the start arch and into the sea.
The 1.9K swim was designed as 2 loop course with an “Australian exit”, which means that instead taking you out too far into the sea in one large loop, they split the swim into two smaller loops, but after the first loop, you have to exit the sea, and run over the timing mat, then re-enter to do a smaller concentric loop within the larger loop. The first loop was 1200m, the second was 700m.
The Mediterranean sea was relatively calm, the water quite clear. I swam strong and sighted well the whole way. Only 3-4 elbow and leg clashes (one somewhat nasty I might add), but an otherwise uneventful swim and I was out of the water in 41m:31s.
T1 was a far way away – a 400m jog through the beach, the hotel lobby and towards the road end of the hotel. I took T1 easy, no point making haste and then repenting later at leisure over 90K. However, as I was analysing my timing after the race, a T1 of 10 minutes seemed a bit too long. After much racking of brains, I later realised that the 400m distance to T1 probably accounted for a good 3 minutes of those 10 minutes.
I rode out of T1 to do a single 90K bike loop starting and ending at the same place, thus T2 was the same as T1. The road was excellent, with good traffic control (many parts completely closed off to traffic). The course was pretty flat and fast but with some wind to offset part of the advantage. My complete lack of bike training since Ironman Zurich showed and I started struggling to maintain speed after 50K. Nevertheless, I rode back into the Gloria Golf Resort in a time of 3h:10m, not having taken sufficient advantage of the relatively fast bike course.
T2 was a quick 2 minute affair and off I went on the 21K half marathon. The route was two and half loops of 7k within the vast grounds of the Gloria Golf resort, followed by an exit from the resort towards the finish at the Gloria Sports Arena. The course was on varied terrain including paved walkways within the resort, grass as well as trail. There were some undulating sections and a couple of climbs on each loop, but I would not characterise the course as difficult profile-wise. Some parts were shaded while some were exposed, and it had grew extremely hot when I started the run around 12pm.
I had started conservatively yet was passing others left and right. Nothing gives you more energy than reeling in runners at regular intervals. I spent the entire run segment in assassin mode, passing struggling and walking athletes. The result analysis showed that I improved my overall ranking by almost 200 places from the end of the bike till the finish, which means I overtook almost 200 of them during the 21K run.
I took the run a bit more cautiously than I should have. Many times during the run, I tried to do an objective out-of-body analysis of my condition and concluded that the pace I was running at felt quite easy, yet as soon as I snapped out “analysis mode”, I went into a shell and decided to take it cautiously.
In any case, around 17K, we exited the Gloria Golf Resort to run on roads to the finish at the Gloria Sports Arena. This section was particularly brutal with no shade and it had gotten unbearably hot. I was dousing myself with water liberally at each and every aid stations. With just 2K to go and the sights, sounds and sense of the finish looming near, I finally let myself go and did a fast finish to end the run in the sports arena with a run split of 1h:45, and a total time of 5h:50m.
Even without the World Championship qualification, I was immensely happy, thrilled and satisfied with this time and my performance. A volunteer handing me my beautiful medal and finisher t-shirt. I hung around the finish for a while, took some photos and walked to the hotel, had a shower then walked back to the finish for a quick bite and drink, then caught the shuttle back to the Gloria Golf Resort to get my bike and T1 & T2 bags. Then another short bike ride back to the hotel.
A few hours later, at 6:30pm, I went back to the Gloria Sports Arena for the Award Ceremony and the Slot Allocation. The atmosphere there was festive. This was a age-group only race, no pro-race. Many local triathletes as well as returning foreign triathletes were among the age-group podium finishers. A local brother-sister duo both featured on the podium. A local athlete had taken sick after the race but was cheered enthusiastically. However, the loudest applause was reserved for a relay team racing in the name of Mr. Nuri Ozaltin.
The award ceremony was followed immediately by the slot award ceremony for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. The way it works is that from each 70.3 Ironman race around the world (there are more than 50 of them, so one occurs almost every weekend), a predefined number of athletes (between 30 to 50) qualify from within their respective age groups to get a chance to compete in the World Championship. The slots allotted for a particular race are further distributed among the various age groups depending on the depth of field within that age group. Thus, the M35-39 age group usually has the most number of slots (upto 5 or 6), whereas some outliers like the F65-69 age group usually has just 1 slot or sometimes even no slot. Within each age group, if an athlete who gets a slot declines to accept it (he may have already qualified or he just does not want to go for whatever reasons), then that slot rolls down to the next fastest on the list. Usually a slot rolls down just 1-2 places, but on certain occasions, these slots have been known to roll down even deeper.
First, the female age groups were done with, from the oldest to the youngest, then the men. As my age group (M35-39) began, I had no hope for a slot, I had gone to the ceremony for a different experience. But suddenly, after awarding the first few slots, the announcer called out “Next, all the way from India, Atul Godbole”. I could not believe my ears! I sprang up and RAN to the stage. The announcer said “Look at him go! Not many athletes from India come for these races”. I climbed on the stage and accepted by medallion and invitation letter at the hands of none other than the Queen of Kona, 8-time Ironman Hawaii champion, Paula Newby Fraser. She shook my hand and congratulated me. I waved at the crowd which gave me a huge cheer. I exited the stage, and immediately made a beeline to make the payment and do the registration. You have to register and make the payment there itself otherwise your slot is void. I was qualified for the 2017 Ironman 70.3 World Championships! Probably the first and only Indian (so far!) to do so. It was a dream come true and an excellent motivation to keep on working hard to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii in the next few years.
While the Ironman World Championship is staged every year at the iconic location of Kona, Hawaii, the Ironman 70.3 WC keeps on moving every year. the 2016 WC was held just a few weeks ago in Australia. The 2017 WC is to be held in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA on September 9-10, the female race on the 9th, the mens race on the 10th. I have marked my calendar!!!
The organizers of Ironman 70.3 Turkey thanked all foreign athletes for visiting and participating in this race despite the negative media publicity that the nation of Turkey has been getting recently, and made a call to each athlete to return next year bringing 5 more athletes with them. I now make the same call to the Indian triathlete community. I plan to take a Team Motiv8 contingent of 5 coached athletes to this magnificent race next year. If you are doing your first half Ironman race, this is an excellent choice. Mark your calendars and contact me.