Selfies and Smiles

Xiamen 70.3, China

In one of the most noteworthy pieces of news in the triathlon world in 2015, WTC Ironman was bought out by a Chinese corporation. Wanda Group paid a reported $650 million for the privilege. The news was fairly swiftly followed by announcements of two 70.3 races in China towards the end of 2016. At the time of the take over China didn’t have an Ironman branded race. The announcement of 70.3s in Hiefi and Xiamen was also followed with a controversial move probably designed to both increase publicity for the races and attract international competitors. The races were to offer age-group slots for the full distance Ironman World Championships in Kona for 2017. Discussed widely at the time, opinion amongst the tri community seemed split. Some advocated the move, viewing it purely as a toll to attract athletes and grow the races and sport in China. Others were infuriated that athletes would be able to qualify and race in Kona having never completed a full Ironman.

As age group qualification is not an option for me, only one thing really registered. Racing in China was now a possibility and one that needed serious consideration. Back in April I had no idea how my race season was going to pan out, but I knew that a race in China in October would be difficult to turn down. There are so many reasons I do this sport, but two of the main ones are that I love to travel and I love to race. No need to ask me twice. I signed up.

I’m not going to lie, it was not easy to obtain a visa. For people considering racing there this should feature in your budgeting and stress factor. It’s a drawn out process which is most definitely not cheap. I paid £270 in total to have it processed and delivered. I am sure there are cheaper ways to do it, but with limited time between trips I was a little trapped. Ironman made it as easy as possible, providing hotel details and a letter from the race organiser, but it was still one almighty faff. On the plus side it is valid for two whole years! Yup. I will be going back.

Anyway, on to the important stuff. The food! Everyone I met who had visited China had one thing in common to tell me. “The food is dreadful”. As an IBS sufferer and general diva when it comes to what I eat, I was dreading it a bit. I went with an open mind and vowed not to let it spoil my trip. Plain rice would be on offer surely! I needn’t have worried. The food was truly wonderful. Breakfast in the hotel had everything from roasted sweet potato to pick-your-own-omlette. It was a true athlete breakfast, and me and all the other athletes staying in the hotel got our money’s worth. We also managed to find a superb local Chinese restaurant complete with a Chinese waitress who spoke some Spanish. Queue much garbled Spanglish and Spanese and we mostly managed to order things we recognised. Except the mini-deep fried crabs. Those were an experience (for Mark not me)…post-race of course! Google translate came in very useful throughout the trip. Schools in China teach English as standard so being understood was not as difficult as I thought it might be. As always we were put to shame although we did try to learn at least the basics of the language before we went. But the Chinese people were unerringly friendly and helpful. Despite rarely seeing as many international tourists as they had that week, the locals were smiling constantly and never refused a selfie.

The expo and racking in the couple of days before the race were interesting. Over two thirds of the race competitors were Chinese, and most of them were novice athletes. The sport is clearly growing exponentially in China and there were so many brand new bikes in transition it was like a bike show. Many of the athletes were competing for the first time, seeing their brand new bike for the first time (delivered to the race site) and riding it on race day for the first time. We saw heaps of new SHIVs and P5s just piled up waiting for their owners. It was insane. But at the same time there were plenty of grass-roots competitors the likes of which you rarely see at Ironman races in Europe. I even saw a guy on a mountain bike in jeans and a t-shirt out on the course. Crazy mainly because jeans in 30 odd degrees is just not a good choice. The atmosphere as a result, both at the expo and in transition, was fabulous. The few international athletes who had made the long trip to Xiamen, mostly based on the promise of a Kona slot, were going out of their way to offer advice and guidance to the masses of novices. I was reminded so many times over the week why I love this sport, and most especially the people in the sport. There were a lot of selfies being taken…

Race day turned out to be a hot one (32 degs). In the days leading up to the race the climate was fairly temperate and there was a strong wind. On race day though the wind dropped completely and temperatures soared. Air quality also reduced and humidity went up. Water temperatures were right on the borderline (22 degs), but on race morning the swim was announced as a non-wetsuit for PROS (wetsuit for AG). I was actually glad, it was already roasting by the time the race started (0930 due to tide times) and I felt for the age-groupers who had a long wait in full wetsuits in the blazing heat.

I love a beach start, and when the gun went I was first into the water striking out for the first buoy. As a couple of girls went past me at about 200m I held some feet (which turned out to be Emma Pallant’s) to about 600m at which point we turned right and straight into a current. The next 600m in to this current felt like swimming on a treadmill – I was going nowhere fast and was on my own. Eventually the next turn point came, and with the current behind me the swim back to the beach was fast. I exited the water in third place just over two mins back from the lead two and with a three min cushion to the main pack. I was really pleased with my swim, mainly because I felt strong and smooth and have made inroads in the last block of training.
The rest of the race did not go quite so well. Sarah Piampiano and Parys Edwards passed me on the bike and I slipped into fifth into T2, coming off the bike with a couple of other girls just behind me. The bike course in Xiamen is flat and straight with perfect road surfaces over a two lap course which is protected by barriers and lots of Chinese military and police. There are three dead turns each lap, and riders have the privilege of riding on a completely closed dual carriageway. I enjoyed the ride a lot, despite a distinct lack of hills, and it was a good opportunity to test out a new bike position and some fabulous new Parcours race wheels.

The run takes you along the sea front in Xiamen and while some of it is flat there are also a few drags uphill. The three lap course was hot and I struggled with core temperature from the start. Coming from the UK winter was not ideal preparation for the race conditions, but I toughed it out with coke and ice to help. The aid stations on both the bike and the run were incredibly well organised, and they had lovely cold sponges and water on the run as well as all the usual nutrition. It was amazing really considering this was not only the first race in Xiamen, but that many of the volunteers will have never witnessed a triathlon before. My only complaint is that they didn’t stick to Chinese food for the finish line! I could have killed a noodle soup. Instead we were given the worst pizza I have ever not eaten!

The race done, my husband Mark and I went about celebrating (he had a brilliant race) and doing some more sightseeing in the local area. We visited a temple, ate some unrecognizable food, saw the old town and marvelled at the sights and smells of Xiamen.

This was an incredible trip for so many reasons. Friendly people, great organisation, tough race, fabulous facilities, wonderful food and beautiful location. I know, and I am not even being paid to market the race. It was made all the more enjoyable by the people we met and spent time with there. There is no doubt we will go back to China, but for now we just have a few weeks before we head out to Bahrain. And then it’s Christmas! Where has the year gone…


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