Hefei 70.3: now we know!
Since the announcement of the acquisition of Ironman brand by the Wanda group in August 2015, I have been waiting to see what the new Ironman group can produce in China. Since October 16, 2016, date of Hefei 70.3, the first 70.3 of a series of five races in China, I know. I saw and experimented what they can do, and honestly, it is hard to imagine if you haven’t lived it yourself. But try, just for a moment, to picture the following:
- Imagine a race for which the organisers emptied the artificial lake for the swim, drained it, filtered it, put the water back and offered a perfectly organised swim with a seamless rolling start.
- Imagine a 90km one-loop bike course on completely empty roads, sometimes 6-lanes wide, on perfectly smooth pavement, across the city and along the surrounding lakes. Imagine soldiers and policemen standing at each and every single lamppost separated by less than 50m, for the whole bike course.
- Imagine the race village set in the middle of the ‘Wanda city’, a mega complex of attraction park, top of the range hotels, shopping centres, restaurants, IMAX cinema, water park, green promenades, lakes, etc. which looked as if it had been emptied from almost everybody, a weird feeling of ghost city… I told you, hard to imagine, you gotta live it.
No wonder the first race of the series occurred in Hefei, it’s Wanda group’s planet there
I really wanted to be there at the first Ironman 70.3 in China for several other reasons, beyond the curiosity of seeing Wanda group’s quality of execution:
Almost anybody who endured the first Ironman China editions in 2008, 2009 and 2010 in Hainan island will tell you: those were their worst racing experiences ever. I had been doing triathlons since 2000 and after a hiatus of several years off long distance triathlon racing for many reasons, the 2009 edition of China 70.3 was meant to be my comeback. The experience was so devastating that it almost convinced me to scrap triathlon altogether. It probably was (and remains to date) the hottest race on the planet, with temperature exceeding 50 degrees on the bike course, the worst and most ridiculous swim I have ever experienced with phenomenal currents that blew most competitors off course and forced them to walk/run 10-15’ up river to reach T1, with volunteers running out of water very early in the race, sunscreen applied to the competitors that acted that magnifying glasses literally burning alive the poor walkers (nobody was running anymore at that stage), etc. I really wanted to give China a second chance. I saw what they can do at the Olympics, with the right amount of money and firepower, and I knew they could put together a good race… and erase from my memory that traumatic experience. Mission accomplished, ‘Ironman China’ is now associated to good memories.
The Wanda group put at stake 50 slots for the Ironman World Championship at Hefei 70.3. By doing this, they broke the promise that was made a couple of years ago by the then managing team of Ironman, namely, that to be part of the full Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, you needed to qualify exclusively on full Ironman distance races. Ironman group therefore stopped offering slots for Hawaii to 70.3 races everywhere in the World. Change of management, change of direction, and the Wanda group decided to provide 190 Kona slots over the 5 new races in China, to attract the best athletes in the World who are used to chasing Kona slots around the planet and make sure all races reach full capacity. The strategy worked, as 1,600 athletes including 600 from overseas contributed to make Hefei 70.3 a resounding success. As a result, the level of competition was top notch, with fast people from all over the World. I even discovered that we now have to fight for top places against… Russians, as the fastest guys in 35-39 and 45-49 Age Groups were won by them. The Chinese athletes did not do so well, only getting World Championship slots in the younger 18-24 Age Group, but triathlon is a very new sport to them and I expect more and more Chinese to fight for podium positions over the years. Personally, I reached my objective and qualified for the Ironman World Championship in October 2017.
Me, my wife Anne Lavandon, Phuket training partner Riccardo Kuhar and the fastest Indonesian triathlete Andy Wibowo all got our ticket to Kona
Triathletes are doing this demanding sport for several different reasons, one of each being the feeling of belonging to a tribe of half crazy individuals. I was one of the guys at the origin of the ‘hyenas’, a group of Hong Kong based triathletes with high expectations (read: qualify for the Ironman World Championship by being among the fastest at Hefei 70.3 race). Why hyenas? Well, hyenas are animal leaving in a herd, traveling together, ready to do anything, always looking for easy preys, either dying or already dead… When we heard about the coming attribution of Kona slots on half Ironman distance races, we felt that -for us- it would be easier to qualify for Kona on these new races in China than on full distance races, as half distance races require less hours of training. The last weeks building to the race was a lot of fun, with Facebook postings, crazy fun discussions on our Hyenas Whatsapp group, hyena face stickers put everywhere… all this contributed to a comforting sense of belonging and sharing, which always helps when you train through scorching heat, under torrential rain and on unhealthy polluted days. We did have a lot of fun, but the Hyenas’ results were disappointing as only very few of us actually qualified for Kona. That being said, the story is not over yet, as many of us will go to one or several of the other new races in China. Besides, it proves that there is really no easy way in to Kona, which contributes to its ever-growing aura: Kona remain the Graal for most triathletes.
Hyenas stickers on our beloved Ceepos, the cap I
wore at the ceremony and Erich Felbabel’s helmet
In spite of all this, our weekend in Hefei gave us several moments of scare, so much so that, on Saturday evening, like many others, my wife and me were wondering if really we wanted to race on the following day.
I cannot really say if it is recurrent thing or just bad luck, but Friday and Saturday were incredibly foggy and we could really feel and smell the pollution. Like many other endurance junkies, what I search in triathlon and other sports like this one is a good excuse to be outdoor, enjoy the sun and blue sky… Already in Hong Kong I often feel depressed as I lose the connection to the pleasure of being out, when humidity level makes just walking painful, the outdoor pool temperature reaches 35 degrees and pollution hides pretty much everything there is to see. But as we travelled thousands of kilometres for this, spending non negligible money and time away from our kids, we were really wondering for 48h why on Earth we picked this race. That being said, on race day, I was so much ‘in the zone’ for almost 4h30 that I didn’t see nor smell anything, and the awesome and unique bike course just made my day.
Gloomy, polluted and grey… not looking forward to it
The Chinese organisers were pretty ambitious when they set up the race, with a swim in the heart of the city, almost one hour by bus/taxi from the bike to run transition that was located in Wanda city. That made the day before the race pretty hectic, but the shuttle system to the bike transition worked very well, and the shuttle system to race start on Sunday morning was equally stress-free. It’s just that races with two transitions always entail extra stress for the competitors. I experienced the same at Ironman Melbourne. But again, now that I have experimented how well it worked, and now trusting the organisers, I would live the same experience with quiet mind.
The last thing is… well, this is China… As Europeans, the transition to racing in the US and Australia is seamless, and of course, when you race in China, things are… different. The communication barrier is one of the biggest you may ever have to experiment, with the amount of misunderstanding mounting to a level that can be pretty annoying when your ‘race of the year’ is the day after. I’m not really talking about the race-related environment in itself, it’s more about the interaction with the locals for transport (including airport staff), food and accommodation. But with smiles and patience, most things (all things in fact) fall into place. Sometimes, you may even have nice surprises, like the hotel staff cleaning our bikes with a karcher, rather skilfully I would say.
So, would I recommend Hefei 70.3? Definitely. Just remember what you read, the good and not so good, and you’ll be finely prepared.
The great thing occurring right now is that the Ironman China story continues. Xiamen 70.3 is already around the corner and there will be another contingent of angry hyenas from Hong Kong and the rest of the World chasing the coveted Kona slots, raising the bar of competition on China soil, as well as athletes of all levels just curious to experience a new family of races on a continent bound to become a major actor in our sport.
Fellow triathletes from Hong Kong and beyond, enjoy our new playing ground, the 70.3 China series!