*** many thanks to Kenneth Heney for this race report ***

Having arrived in Manila, hired a car and driven right through the centre of the city at morning peak rush hour, I had given my observation skills and reaction time a serious work out.  These proved highly valuable on the treacherously demanding bike course on Saturday.

I entered Challenge Philippines very much last minute, as a ‘big race’ test before my Ironman Melbourne season finale.  I should have checked out the course profiles before hitting the confirmation icon on the screen, but I’d have probably entered in any case.  Challenge billed this as one of, if not the most, demanding courses in their portfolio, and now I can personally vouch for that claim, second only to IM Lanzarote in my personal experience.

The venue was stunning, being North West of Manila, in the Freeport of Subic Bay.  Set up at Camayan Beach resort, on the quiet outer bay where the rainforest meets sandy beaches and aqua blue protected reefs the inaugural event was staged well, with minimal but notable teething problems, which ultimately did not take anything away from the overall experience.  The race briefing was precluded by a dolphin show in the bay, and a race between two of the elite male athletes and a killer whale with trainer.  Excellent and different opener for the weekend, with the two pros showing real sportsmanship in their participation in this the day before their race.

Skipping over the race preparations of the night before and the morning of the race, being specific and personal to each of us, I arrived in plenty of time, set up the bike and found myself in a good mental and relaxed state on the beach for the 06:30 start.  The male pros started at 06:28 and the female pros at 06:29.  Then it was my wave.

A non-wetsuit sea swim was in warm, slightly choppy and clear waters.  I had done a lot of excellent sessions at Ibn Battutta gate with TriDubai, so was confident I could push hard on the swim for the 1900m.  I easily found clear water, sighted well and got into a good strong rhythm.  I felt I must be going good when I started to pass pink swim caps, being the designated colour of the pro women.  Feeling really good, I wrenched myself out of the water onto the beach further up the resort, at the bike transition, to glance at my watch showing circa 32mins.  That didn’t seem to be too good, as I had hoped to be under 30mins.  I shut that totally out of my mind immediately, and bolted through to spot my bike as rehearsed, 3rd row up, opposite 3rd white tent.

The bike course started up hill (like straight up a hill) and with only steep treacherous downhills to break up the climbing, this was a tough course.  The road conditions were difficult to say the least, with a very rough patchy mixture of tarmac and concrete throughout.  There was no time to relax and find a rhythm, only time to push up hill, curse the very idea of entering this event, and control steep winding downhills with as little breaking as you dared.  Into the second half of the route, I started to consciously try and enjoy being where I was.  The area and route was indeed beautiful, and it was a privilege to be able to cycle in this location, however I couldn’t help but think how twisted it was, that the people standing on the side of the road cheering, were living a very basic life in wooden huts, with very few belongings, and we were accepting their admiration cycling through their world on hundreds of thousands of dollars of carbon bicycles. Their support was amazing, and it seemed whole schools of children were out on various points of the route, whom literally screamed as if we were superstars.  Very humbling.

I started to pass people in the later stages of the bike and was feeling pretty strong.  There were a few stretches of better undulating roads, although short lived, where I was able to hold a good pace and catch some of the technically insane downhill cyclists.  I passed some more women pros, and pushed on up and down the hills towards the end of the course, where with renewed confidence I arrived down the very steep rutted road that I had started the bike on just over 3 hours earlier. 

The event announcer called my name out as I ran in with my bike, followed by his statement of ‘it’s still very quiet here’, which coupled together with the lack of racked bikes made me think I was doing OK.

Runners on and I was out of the blocks quick smart, feeling good and with all the brick sessions at the Autodrome embedded into the functioning of my body, I was running good immediately.  Less than 1km in and we begin to go up into the jungle, and have to put my head down and climb again.  I initially pass two people very early on and later on another two in quick succession.  I am aware there are not many runners about, as the mountainous course was littered with switchbacks, but I did note at least 3 others ahead each time I approached U-turns, but they all seemed to have double digit numbers.  This couldn’t be right.

And then, hill climbing again at around the 10km point, my adductor went into serious cramp. I stopped very briefly, stretched, and moved on.  Still cramping I just hoped it would cease.  With a steadied painful mechanical cadence, it was excruciating perseverance that got me up that climb, to turn and start to move back down, where the opposite gradient meant I was able to stretch out my stride and the cramping ceased. I was now acutely aware I was in danger of getting further cramping causing more detrimental implications to my race.

Pushing up the hills, striding down the drops and taking as much water and Gatorade as possible at feed stations, I staved off the cramping and enjoyed navigating the trails and around the monkeys at the roadsides.  I tried hard, but couldn’t catch the three ahead of me, but the gap to the competitors behind, was definitely becoming bigger. Later in the run, I cramped again, this time in my other leg in the calf, which I again gritted my teeth and ran through knowing I was close, and the fact that it was a different muscle group I found encouraging.

With just over 1km to go, the run into the resort was steeply downhill followed by a short flat route through transition to the finish funnel. Tempted to push it but very aware of the twinging of pre cramp signals in multiple areas of my legs now, a controlled and focused run into the finish area, to a raise of my arms and across the line. 

I really didn’t know what position I had finished in, as there was no announcement crossing the line.  I kind of thought I must have done OK as the athletes area was populated only by pros.  I didn’t really think about it, filled a plate high with rice and vegetables, sat down and began the recovery.  I showered on site, got some shut eye on the beach and then joined the finish line party, still unaware of my placing.  It wasn’t until I sent a text to a friend and asked him to check how I did, as I had no internet access, when I was first made aware of my result.  Then later, when I got speaking to a few fellow competitors are they resurfaced from their hotels, I started to believe I had won my category.

I am absolutely delighted to have been able to go and compete at the first Challenge Philippines, and to have had such a great result and in the colours of TriDubai.  I have been quietly in attendance at TriDubai sessions and running intervals with ABRaS AC, which have all been key to my building of this level of fitness. To be able to stand on that podium in the TriDubai ‘Ride for Roy’ cycle top, was hugely enjoyable.  I have no trainer and am a great believer in hard work and self-discipline, but without the efforts of TriDubai in organising and leading the numerous sessions throughout the week and the consistent enthusiasm of ABRaS AC, I would not have had the same level of structure to my own training, nor met the inspirational people within these clubs, whom disseminate an unending level of encouragement to each and every one of us.

I will now always have a place in my heart for the beautiful country and people of Philippines, and the hills of Subic Bay. The results are a shortcut I will have on my desktop for a long time, as I astound myself each time I look at where I finished and the athletes whom finished around me.  This was a crippling course, and all those who finished deserve serious credit, but for me who has admiration for many people for many reasons, running faster than the Australian legend ‘Macca’, is my little gem of the weekend. I am stoked.