Challenge Vietnam has come and gone, and so much happened that I find hard to express in words glowing enough. So let me say it straight.
CHALLENGE VIETNAM IS A MUST-DO RACE. Whether you’re an individual or relay participant, pro or age grouper, or a supporter along for the ride, Nha Trang is a terrific venue and the organizers Pulse Active put on a great race last Sunday.
I managed to Snapchat my way through race weekend, so I’ve got the videos below to help me tell the story.
I had booked my flights when I intended to race as an individual athlete, so I thought that flying Vietnam Airlines through its codesharing partner Philippine Airlines would be the best bet. I didn’t know that baggage would not be checked all the way through to my final destination. I also found it difficult to purchase additional baggage allowance because I had booked through a third-party website — the default allowance was only 20kg!
So I ended up wasting almost an entire day traveling and landed in Nha Trang at 8pm. I missed the complimentary carbo-loading party, where I heard people were served plenty of good food (huhu!). Instead, I hopped out for some beef noodle soup (pho bo) and this short walk around my area allowed me to get my bearings in the city.
Most of the beach resorts are located along Tran Phu street, but my hotel was about two blocks set back from the beach front. I was amazed at the variety of shops and restaurants even in this small area. There were also quite a few Russian tourists strolling around at that time of night.
I had money changed in Ho Chi Minh and was flush with currency, but I was still surprised by how cheap food was.
My hotel served me beef noodle soup for breakfast, which I suspect came from the same restaurant I’d eaten at the previous night. This meant I ate heartily and happily, because it was just sooooooo gooooooood.
I was all fueled up for my recon swim where I’d be joining two guys from Team Revv, Iah Isip and Francis Diano. All three of us were doing the same thing: a relay where we would swim and run. I’ll be forever thankful Team Revv adopted me for the week, because racecations are really much more fun with company!
I had left Manila nursing an oncoming cold and had just received some slightly distressing lab results, so the whole time I was still contemplating whether or not to start in the morning, or if it would even be safe for me to race. However, I had to consider someone else’s interests. A beginner to the sport, my relay cyclist Dimitri had planned to visit his brother in Nha Trang regardless of whether he’d be able to get on a relay team. He had snapped up the opportunity when Challenge helped put together a relay team for me. I didn’t want to let him down.
After the swim, I returned to my hotel to freshen up and consider my options. I had initially expressed interest in renting a bicycle so I could get around. I planned to head to some of the city’s sights.
Well, I saw how the motorists drove, and it put me off that plan. I didn’t want to get into a collision so close to race day! Instead, I headed back out to grab something to eat… and bumped into the TriClark team.
It felt like a very intimate race where you know everyone, or you’ll end up friends with everyone. The atmosphere was also quite laid back. I didn’t feel an undercurrent of anxiety I commonly experience at bigger events.
I walked with them back to their hotel before heading to Star City Nha Trang to pick up my race packet, and bumped into the rest of Team Revv and TriSixFiv.
We had a nice big family-style lunch at a restaurant called Galangal, serving Vietnamese food. When Filipina pro triathlete Monica Torres wandered in, we asked her to sit with us. Our final bill for 11 people cost roughly 6,000 pesos total — and we were all stuffed!
I went to check out the transition area, which had been set up just that morning at 2/4 Square. It’s a public area in the heart of Nha Trang and right on the seaside. Thousands of people pass by every day, which meant thousands of people who had never seen a triathlon happen in Nha Trang would be able to witness it take place. Everyone knows that with triathlon you start out first as a curious spectator…
The transition area was truly well-secured, with guards on detail, security cameras trained on the bikes, and tall barriers all around.
The expo area and stage was also set up right next to transition, so it was very easy for participants to pick up nutrition, or bike parts and accessories they might need for the next day. I also loved the companies that partnered with Challenge Vietnam to provide goody bags (Livin Collective), post-race nutrition (La Holista), and drink (Pasteur Street Brewing Company).
I finally met Dimitri for the first time at the race briefing. The Filipinos were probably the biggest contingent from any of the countries represented at the race. We all felt like such pioneers at an inaugural race in a venue that had never seen a triathlon before. Even before the race had even been held, most of us were already thinking about coming back next year with our families and teams in tow. That’s how much Nha Trang had charmed us, too.
When we came out of the briefing, it was pouring outside! September is usually when Vietnam’s weather turns rainy, and the sudden monsoon trapped me and Team TriSixFiv at a pho place. Perfect weather to eat some more pho!
Day 3: Race Day
I had an asthma attack the night before, and the cold had stuffed up my nose. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to breathe properly in the swim, so I went early to bed and took a nasal decongestant. That seemed to do the trick, because I woke up right with the alarm and felt much better.
It was strange to roll out of bed and not have pressure to race an entire half-ironman. At the same time, it was the first time I’d attempt to swim and run those distances with only a few hours between them. As long as I got clear of the water, we’d be in business.
I found my friends at each of their transition areas and wished them well, then said hello to Marcus Altmann, who oversees Challenge Family events in the Asia Pacific.
Back when I did Challenge Camsur last year, Marcus had given me a very early heads up that he was flying off to Vietnam to meet about a potential race. And now we were here!
What came as a big shock to us was how many Vietnamese non-participants were in the water on that Sunday morning! It was so funny to see serious triathletes in their speedsuits and goggles emerge from swim warmup right alongside grandmas wearing plastic bathing caps. As a result, race swim start was pushed back a few minutes until the swim marshals could clear the course.
I was standing with the TriSixFiv gang. Denise Hernandez was doing her first half-ironman. She asked me, “You’re probably so used to race day, right? No more nerves?”
I told her that every race brought fresh devilry with it, and you just have to psych yourself up to deal with things as they come. I was already feeling uneasy about the swim.
Finally it was game time. I positioned myself on the outside edge of the field so I wouldn’t have to deal with the washing machine. Stroke per stroke we got farther away from shore. After about 100 meters, I was in clear water but was feeling a little short of breath. So I flipped onto my back and started to backstroke so I could catch my breath and get my heart rate under control. Don’t panic, I told myself. If your breathing doesn’t come right you can always keep going with the backstroke!
The swim was a two-lap course, and I knew I always found my rhythm midway through the first lap. So finally I was able to return to the front crawl, get around the buoys, and head back to shore.
Partway through the second lap, my neck started to chafe, and my left hand was starting to cramp. How long had I been out there? I had my answer when I emerged from the water and ran to give my chip to Dimitri.
I was swimming for 50 minutes?! And had swum more than 2,400 meters?! Due to regulations, the swim course could not be anchored to the sea floor, so our buoys had stretched and floated. I also had a few GPS errors on my watch so it recorded almost 2,900 meters. On average though, most people’s watches were in agreement that the course was long.
I met up with Iah and Francis and we cheered everyone we knew onto their bikes and out of transition. Then we headed back to our hotels to shower, eat, and change for our run legs.
The relay gallery was full with runners awaiting the return of their cyclists. Among them was Steph Nguyen’s sister Jen, who was dipping her toes into triathlon and would be celebrating her birthday the next day.
And then, one by one, they started leaving. Soon it was just me and two other guys. Where was Dimitri?
In he came at just two minutes before the bike cut-off! He’d suffered from cramps on the rolling bike course with its sustained climbs. I immediately ripped the chip off his ankle, wrapped it around mine, and was out of there before anyone would stop me. We were going to beat the race cut-off; we were going to finish. But would I be able to hold it together, or would I fall apart? I hadn’t run anything longer than 10 kilometers since I’d been sick.
The day had stayed cloudy with a slight bit of rain at noon, so I had some leeway to push a little harder without overtaxing my heart due to heat. I stayed within a pace range of 6:00-6:30 min/km for an average pace that was just slightly faster than my last full marathon’s. And what do you know? The muscle memory was still there. No cramping, no painful slowdown, and I was able to overtake quite a few of those who had left transition before me.
Because I was at the back of the pack, I can confidently say that even down to the last person on the course, the support was still there. The water and electrolyte drinks were still cold when I got to the aid stations and every kilometer or two had a group of three volunteers cheering us on with their beautiful smiles. It was amazing, and more than I expected after having seen some other races where the cheer and aid stations would start packing up after the seventh hour.
The controlled effort, though not my fastest, made me feel stronger than I have been in the last few weeks. Crossing the finish line and striking that gong was such a great feeling — and we were well within cut-off time. There’s nothing I want more than to be fully healthy again to complete another race as an individual.
I hung around with some friends after the race, but wanted to get showered and changed so I skipped the awards ceremony. Instead, I got a delicious banh mi then treated myself to a massage.
I fell asleep during my massage and awoke refreshed and ready for the Challenge Vietnam post-race party to be held at the Skylight Nha Trang. Built atop one of the highest buildings in the city, the views were breathtaking, the atmosphere pumping, and the company so much fun. It was definitely one of the best post-race parties I’ve ever been to — and I’ve already been to those that have been called legendary.
Well, we all had to go home sometime. I flew back to Ho Chi Minh City along with Team Revv, TriSixFiv, and Nylah Bautista who ran the Velotrix bike cleaning service during the race. Our flight was at noon, and then we had an afternoon and evening in HCMC before leaving for Manila on the red-eye Cebu Pacific flight. Steph and Jen were our gracious hosts in HCMC and took us around to the market and to buy Vietnamese coffee before we all proceeded to a yacht on the Saigon River for dinner and Jen’s proper birthday party.
Before we headed out to the yacht, Nylah, Francis, and I went with Steph to her brother’s bar Urban to buy some wine. While there, we had some delicious beef carpaccio which had just been added to their new menu. Urban is known in Ho Chi Minh for setting a new standard in nightlife and dining and it was nice to pay such a popular place a visit, even if a hurried one.
That has to have been one of the best racecations I’ve had in a long while. I’m glad I pushed through with Challenge Vietnam even if it’s not how I expected to race. To tell you the truth though, I thought it was already worth the trip even if I’d DNS’ed. I’m already looking forward to building properly for next year’s race and having more of my friends with me on that starting line.
(Stay tuned for an upcoming post soon about the logistics for traveling to race Challenge Vietnam.)