We asked for it, and we got it! The country’s first (and maybe last?) Ironman race will be finally held on local soil. That’s 140.6 miles (226km for us) of unadulterated heat, hills, and wind. If you’re like most triathletes who are up for a challenge, “you won’t be disappointed” is an understatement. Let’s cut the chase and talk about what to expect on race day!
Most local triathletes will be familiar with the swim venue. Countless races have been held here but this swim course is very unique. Navigation will be critical (especially for right side breathers) as the buoy line will be on the left side following a counterclockwise route. There will 2 loops and 4 turns per loop so make sure you know how to properly navigate such a complex course. Luckily, the current, historically, has been weak or almost insignificant for this course. However, since IMPH will start late, expect more current than what we’re normally used to. The trick is to sight often and maintain a steady effort!
I’ll save most of the discussion for the bike. Having ridden this course more than a handful of times, I could honestly say that this is one of the more challenging courses I’ve ridden. Most difficult? Definitely not! But it is very tricky.
Let me start with the course profile. Initially, when I posted the total elevation gain we measured, most people were in disbelief. How could this course have 2400-2600m of total gain? Well, we were able to verify it with 4 separate and independent GPS course profiles (thanks to Makoy Almanzor of Sunrise Events and Raoul Floresca of TriTemple). We used different GPS mapping platforms and I was able to match these with actual GPS ride files. One thing that we should note is that different websites display different elevation data for the exact same ride file. Why? GPS is best designed to navigate in a 2-dimensional plane (forward/back, left and right). It doesn’t do too well with 3D (2D plus up and down). Yes, most devices have barometric altimeters to measure elevation based on differences in air pressure but changes in temperature, weather, etc. will skew the results quite a bit; this is still prone to errors and discrepancies.
Apart from that, most websites (Strava for example) override a file’s embedded elevation readings with their own topographical data (DEM) if it senses inaccuracy. These websites may also smoothen out the readings which in turn lowers total elevation gain. The result, different websites will display different elevation data based on whatever method they use. In a nutshell, it’s practically impossible to have elevation data that’s truly accurate. Our best bet is to analyze multiple ride files and to use websites that use updated accurate databases (Google Earth, MapMyRide, Garmin Course Editor etc). But in my opinion, if the guy who helped design the bike course (Makoy) tells us about the course profile, we better listen. It’s better to over prepare than to underestimate the difficulty.
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Now let’s go into detail. Don’t confuse total gain with gradient. Yes, total gain is a lot; luckily, the hills aren’t too steep. There are just a lot of them and very long ones at that. The first climb is the long ascent going out of Subic Bay. It’s not very steep at first but it starts to gradually become more challenging. It will spike up to higher gradients but not for long. I recommend having a large cassette specifically for this segment of the race. You wouldn’t want to burn your legs too early.
The next part of the course contains a long and fast descent. This is the type of downhill that’s a mix between fear and excitement. Make sure to feather your brakes as you speed down. You’ll still be sharing the road with some cars so be cautious and keep right. Once you move past the SCTEX toll gates, there’s another long gradual descent. I try to stay on my aerobars in this entire segment even if it’s a bit scary especially when there’s wind. The remaining parts of SCTEX are rolling. The hills aren’t steep but there are a lot of them. Some hills even feel like false flats. The most important thing to remember at this point is to pace yourself properly. Hold back when you think you can push; it’s going to be a long day.
Once you pass the Floridablanca exit, you’ll reach another set of climbs going to the Porac exit. Even if you won’t reach the exit itself, you’ll still have to go up and down a few hills leading up to Porac. Again, the gradients here aren’t very steep but it’s a set of long and solid climbs which will sap you both of speed and energy. Be careful not to mash; shift to your small chain ring and spin up these hills. You’ll thank yourself later. After the turnaround at the top of the hill, the long descent is next on the menu. I can barely keep myself on the aerobars for this segment. With oncoming riders and the less than perfect terrain, I’d rather play it safe and hold on to my base bars (so I can keep the brake levers within reach).
On the way back to the Tipo Toll Gate turnaround, you’ll have to deal with another long steady climb that gradually increases in gradient as you inch closer to the U-turn. My advice here is to keep using a gear that you could easily spin. It’s going to be very tempting to just keep yourself in a heavy gear and mash it out. But trust me, it’s not sustainable especially by the time you reach the top of the hill. At the turnaround point, make it a point to stop, refuel, and rehydrate before you try and complete the remaining half of the race. Enjoy the downhill, you’re going to have to repeat the previous segment all over again! Keep an eye on hydration levels as the heat will be at its peak around this time.
As you make your way back to Subic after doing the second loop, the race will really test you. Not only are you tired, possibly low on calories and hydration, the mental fatigue of it all will set in. SCTEX is rather monotonous and boring. Yes the scenery is nice but everything looks the same. This will pose a huge mental barrier when you’ve been seeing it for well over 5hrs already. My tip here is to keep yourself mentally busy. You can do this by perhaps counting up to 180km or by zoning out and focusing on form, power, cadence, etc. At this point, the biggest hurdle is yourself.
Make sure to pace yourself properly as you make your way back up the hill and down into the tunnel. The last segment going down to Subic can be very tricky especially if it’s windy. I always prefer to play it safe and ride the bullhorns. Be cautious of monkeys that will be waiting on the side of the road as well. Spin out the legs as you make your way to T2. You’ve still got a marathon ahead of you!
The run is pretty simple. From Remy field, make your way to Argonaut Highway and run towards the swim venue (ACEA). If you finish the bike course at around 3pm or 4pm, your first problem is the punishing afternoon sun. Coming from the bike where it’s rather breezy, your body suddenly feels like its overheating as the heat radiates both from above and below. You really feel the heat almost baking you for the first hour or so. The trick is to start easy and hold back. Focus on hydrating properly and on taking in nutrition.
As you run past AIA (Auctioneers), the gradient starts to pick up. Hold a steady effort but don’t go too hard. Anticipate that there will be an even steeper hill less than a kilometer out. Perhaps the most difficult part of the run course is the steep hill right beside the airport. My advice here is to just walk up this hill and take time to hydrate and refuel as you make your way past it. Resume running on the rather long downhill segment. It is often very windy in this part of the course. Enjoy the cool breeze; it will help elevate your morale. As you make your way back, it’s generally downhill. Keep a steady cadence, a good moderate effort and mentally prepare for the final loop.
I would say, apart from the last part of the bike, the most challenging part of this race is the last 20km. This is the point where most people start to feel the strong urge to slow down, take a break, or even give up. The best mindset at this point is not to focus on how far you need to go; instead, focus on how far you’ve come. That’s already 200km+ in the bank, what’s another 20km? Take your time as you reach each aid station. Hydrate well, take in the necessary calories then focus on making your way to the next one. I usually try and divide the remaining distance into manageable chunks. For example, instead of looking at the remaining 20km as a whole, I like to think of it as 4 repeats of 5km segments. I know how “short” 5km is so it makes it mentally bearable. One other thing to note here is that as night time falls, temperature drops drastically. Your body will sometimes go into shock. After spending most of the day in the treacherous heat, your body now suddenly feels cold due to the cool sea breeze blowing. Anticipate this and avoid dousing yourself with water as the sun sets. This will help prevent unwanted heat loss from the body. Of course, as night approaches, it becomes darker and darker especially in some parts of the run course. Although there are street lamps, it’s usually not enough to illuminate the entire path. Keep an eye for rocks or cracks in the road that you might trip on.
Once your reach the Acea turnaround for the second time, keep your eyes on the prize, you’ve got roughly 10km to go before finishing arguably the toughest race of your life. In roughly an hour’s time, think of this: you’ll finally be able to call yourself an Ironman!