Thursday, August 31, 2006


text by: gregory burns
photos by: angie tan

Eight months ago, the idea of completing an Ironman competition entered my consciousness. Not in the way that so many other far fetched ideas have come and gone. This time the concept stuck. Given the green light by the race’s title sponsor, Standard Chartered Bank, I began cobbling together the items and stamina I suspected I would need to do something once thought impossible.

So it began. My maintenance training routine expanded to weights and more swimming. I needed to get a hand-cycle and a racing wheelchair (for the run). I researched and decided upon the Sunrise Shark bike and their XL racing chair. I visited their factory in Germany for a fitting. Finally, after getting a racing wetsuit, I had most of the tools in place.

After training in flat Singapore, I returned to California for a summer of biking mountains. I enlisted the support of Scott, a biker friend, and he introduced me to Monte Bello Road near my home. Noted as the steepest in the Bay Area, I would climb it a dozen times over the summer along with a thousand miles of other hilly roads. With a 3.8km swim, 180km ride and a 42km run, I concentrated on the bike section as this would be my Achilles Heal and my biggest challenge. So it was a biking summer.

The new wetsuit was also useful for surfing so when I could, I entered the sea to swim and body-board while getting reacquainted with the ocean waves and currents which training in swimming pools doesn’t provide. Though I had not been in a racing wheelchair for two decades, I entered the Wharf to Wharf 10km race in Santa Cruz thanks to the generosity of my sister Roberta who gave me her runner’s number. I completed the race in 33 minutes.

Just getting to the starting line of any race is one of the biggest challenges. Manhandling all my equipment and Angie’s photography needs from SFO to Seoul was only the beginning. Once in Seoul and when transferring to the domestic flight to Cheju, the airline insisted that I put my bike and chair in boxes. So we needed to find a ‘box-maker’ in a hurry. Fortunately, Mr. Kim downstairs managed to construct boxes the size of Kansas and we were on our way.
Finally in the Shilla Hotel on the beach of Cheju Island, we settled in for the pre-race mayhem. Putting my new racing wheels onto my wheelchair was a shock. They were too big and rubbed on the underside of the wheelchair. I was baffled. Angie suggested we get a hammer and pummel the metal tubing of the chair into submission. Not overly optimistic, we called the concierge and shortly after a man with a hammer arrived. After a bit of sign language he went to work beating the metal underside of my chair. In half an hour, my wheels fit again and I was back in business.

The days before the race were hot and humid with the sea calm and the wind strong. However, rising at 5am on Sunday august 27 for the start of the race, the sky was brooding and spitting lightening. At the starting line everybody was making final preparations. By now, I had a small support team in the form of Chris, Nick, Angie and others who would constantly support me throughout the day. Suited up, we headed down to the beach for the start of the race. At 7am, the officials called for a delay. At 7:10am they canceled the swim due to lightening.

Disappointed, I re-focused on the bike and at 8:05am I began the Korea Ironman. Within two minutes, my chain tried to fall off the sprocket. The road was deep with water as the rain poured down. Visibility was low as my sunglasses kept fogging up and I had no windshield wipers. But the ride began to get better as we caressed the coastal roads. For the first 80km the course was fairly flat and I averaged close to 30km per hour which was unheard of for me. Then we headed inland and into the mountains and also the wind. Rounding a turn, I saw the steep hill that everybody had been talking about. I could make out the riders inching their way up it, some now walking their bikes. But Monte Bello had prepared me for this and I started the long slow slog to the top. Inch by inch I cranked my way up and over the 500 meter-high peak that would prove to be the second hardest part of the race.

For another hour I traveled through the hills. Finally at the 130km mark the course flattened out and I could see the descent ahead. I put my arms into neutral and swept down the slopes for 10kms at close to 60kms per hour. It was glorious and I savored the calm as I knew the next hill was just ahead. And it did arrive, and this time at the 155km point I was exhausted. But I was only 25 kms from my goal and I was still doing okay on my speed. Slowly I managed to heave myself up the last hill and again I was gliding towards the finish line. One of the numerous camera vans shadowing me throughout the race positioned itself in front of me as I descended, the camera man filming out the back of the van. “Go, Go, Go!” I bellowed as I almost crawled up his tail pipe. But the race was winding down and I was heading for the transition. I completed the bike in 8:23:28 according to the clock though my watch said 8:15. But either way, I had finished the 180kms in less than the 9 hours I had hoped for. My team and the media gathered round me and I rested and got ready for the marathon.

I spent 40 minutes recharging before moving out onto the 14km loop that I would need to complete three times. Though the bike route was hilly, in relative terms the run was worse. The course was anything but flat. I found myself dazed and amazed at how long the hills stretched on in front of me. My heavy camel bag with my fluids and extra tires proved of no use as I could not manage to get anything out of the mouthpiece. Dragging myself onwards I managed to reach the end of the first loop and headed back. Now fortunately, it was a mostly downhill. After 90 minutes I reached the stadium and the end of the first loop. My team fed me and stripped me of my useless bag. I was back on course and feeling better and lighter. I pushed into a rhythm and managed to get my speed up. But by now I had been racing for 10 hours and my body was beginning to spit back at me. My stomach was queasy from all the different training gels and fluids I had consumed. I found that leaning over to push the chair, though efficient, made me feel sick as it squashed my heart and stomach. I alternated between sitting upright and leaning forward as I carried on. After another 70 minutes I reached my support team again and I had just one loop to go.

By now it was dark and some runners were starting to wobble. I had to be extra careful not to collide with someone on the course. Nick had given me a whistle which I blew when flying downhill and past runners who were often too dazed to care. With just half a lap to go I kicked up the pace a bit as the end was getting near.

At 9:30pm I crossed the finish line and into the crowd of well-wishers who showered me with congratulations. I had completed the Ironman in 13:21:29 and felt great. For the next hour I had photos taken with dozens of supporters and friends. Finally we managed to get my clothes and equipment sorted out and me onto my feet. We headed to the hotel but it became obvious that I needed medical attention. At the hospital a few hours later they told me that my salt and fluid levels were dangerously low. I lay shaking and trembling on the gurney as my body reacted to all that I had and hadn’t eaten and done over the past 14 hours.

But as is always the case, I survived and have lived to tell the tale which is in fact what I had set out to do 8 months earlier. Though I was not competing and only wished to complete the course, coming in 680th out of 1,015 is encouraging. Surprisingly, upon waking today, I had just one thought, “what’s next?”