Corina (Cocky) Van Dam (Photo: courtesy Corina)

This is an article by invitation. In October 2019, Corina Van Dam, popularly known as Cocky, took part in her first triathlon. Held in Goa, the event was India’s first from the Ironman series. Here she writes about her training for the event and how things actually unfolded on race day.

I may not be the typical endurance sportsperson. Trained as a sports instructor in the 1980s, I indulged in many of the sports of that time – football, basketball, tennis, swimming, fencing, boxing, gymnastics and jazz ballet (long before zumba, aerobics existed). I liked all sports (but most off all ball games!) and managed to pass practical exams in several, even dance. I am clearly an all-rounder. You can invite me for any sport; I am happy to join.

My colleague Vivek Gaur – of Naz Foundation (India) Trust and based in Delhi – suggested I join the TCS 10K run in Bengaluru in 2018 when we both happened to be there on work at the foundation’s Bengaluru office. We had a great weekend with our Bengaluru team as cheering squad. The event was avenue for us to bond. I even finished third in my age category. We decided to do the whole Procam Slam (TCS 10K, ADHM (21km), Tata Steel 25K and TMM (42 km). After that, work-calls and meetings with Vivek always started with updates about preparations. While in Kolkota, we started thinking about our next project after the Procam Slam. Vivek, who had done a few Olympic triathlons didn’t have to waste a second: it should be the first Ironman 70.3 in India. As for me, since you can invite me for any sport: Ironman 70.3 Goa it was.

The mental preparation started in January 2019.

I thought that with my swimming skills, experience in riding bicycles and love for running, a half triathlon should be doable. Although I am trained as a sports coach, I haven’t really kept myself up to date with the new training philosophies and techniques. My 30-year work experience focuses on using sport as tool for social change and has a more sociological and psychological approach than technical. I based my training on my intuition and experience as sportswoman. I think I know my body quite well. I know when to push and when to stop. I am aware that not everybody thinks that’s a good idea.

So I started working on my general endurance through what I love most – running. In the meantime, I continued playing football in the Adidas Creators Football League and became champion with my team Wolfpack FC. It was then that I decided I must leave football for what it was – at least for a while – since I had started prioritizing not getting injured during the game. That is not the right mindset to play football. But there was a triathlon to do.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Until June, I swam when I got the opportunity (I couldn’t find a proper pool, so relied on a friend’s club membership) and cycled every now and then. In June, I found the swimming pool in Dharavi where I got a time slot of 45 minutes to train. My goal became to swim as much as I could in those 45 minutes. The pressure on time helped me do 1.9 km in 46 minutes. I cycled to and from the pool and did a swim test at Aquaman in between to qualify for their triathlon. This gave my fellow swimmers the impression that I was a “ professional.’’ All the time I was wondering why they were not talking to me. Unfortunately, they were in awe based on their own misconception.

Most of my training to cycle, I did with my hybrid bicycle, a very heavy XL specimen. In Mumbai, I pushed the bike, pedaling hard around Eastern Express Highway, Gorai, Madh, Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and Malabar Hill. Finally in August, I bought a road bike. It was quite an investment. As someone born in the Netherlands, cycling has been (and is) for me more ‘transport’ than ‘sport’. Cycling has brought me all my life (and still does) from point A to point B. Cycling for leisure included long coffee breaks and / or camping. In the run up to my first Ironman, I found myself cycling at 4AM during the monsoon on Eastern Express Highway, without coffee break….. I built my rounds up from 30 to 60 to 70. It became easier when I had my road bike. Or so I thought, because during my second ride I got a puncture and had to take a three wheeler back home. I continued to practise on my robust hybrid bike. In this period, I attended a workshop led by Abishek Adhav; it was very interesting and informative. The workshop was also a great place to meet others headed to Ironman Goa. What I learnt in this period was that cycling is the odd one out in the triathlon – it is expensive (even when you buy a cheap bike) and your Ironman can fail because of technical problems (or your inability to solve a technical problem). Cycling remained the discipline that scared me the most.

Running was the discipline that I planned for the least. From June onward, I participated in and won a 10 km run, two 21 km events, one of 50 km and then, I ran the longest distance among women at the six-hour Dil Se night run and the 12-hour Mumbai Ultra. All the time, I was trying to figure out where my strength lay: short distances or ultra.

I read posts on all the WhatsApp triathlon groups and started attending forums where people shared their triathlon experiences. Most of the presenters scared the hell out of me. One day I was at a meeting of those into endurance sport. In the morning I had cycled 75km (on my hybrid) to and from Mira Road and done the MRB Gorai 21 km run. During the meeting, I had to tell myself that that morning I had already put in much of the effort, which goes into an Ironman 70.3 and hence shouldn’t get upset over the horror stories being shared. Another topic which made me insecure was nutrition: the calories to replenish, how to refuel while cycling, taking gels etc. You seemed to require higher skills in mathematics to get this right. Here too, I had to calm myself down. I can run 12 hours, 82 km on sheera, bananas and whatever the hydration stations offer. So relax!!!

With Vivek (Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam)

At the end of the monsoon and a few weeks before D-Day, Yoska – the Ironman organizer in India – held sea swimming practice sessions at Juhu Beach, the dirtiest place you can imagine and I loved it. Here we were, shivering because we were either nervous or cold in our tri-suits or both. I loved the quietness of water. Where can you be alone and not hear anything, anytime in Mumbai? I felt happy when in between two of my strokes, I saw the sunrise. Needless to say, I participated in all further training, necessary or not.

Aquaman was supposed to hold its triathlon in Goa in September. I was to accompany a friend who missed the Ironman registration and do a trial. When it was postponed due to the prolonged monsoon, we decided to do an “IM recce” since hotel and tickets were already booked and paid for. We did the full cycling route (three times), running to collect the bicycles from CyclingZens and then back again. We spent Saturday evening looking for a proper swimming pool in Panaji (Panjim) and failed. I managed to cycle 90 km and run 21km. I thought I was ready.

Getting my bicycle without damage to Goa was a headache. The WhatsApp groups couldn’t stop talking about it: cycle bags, boxes etc. I managed to get my bicycle to Goa without problem in the back of a bus. The Ironman party started when I reached Panaji. While I cycled with a backpack and a bag (discussions on WhatsApp groups led me – a person usually traveling light – to carry all kinds of stuff that I didn’t need), I met the first co-participants from Mumbai. During the rest of the day, it was one big party of meeting people I knew from the Mumbai running scene, the WhatsApp groups, swimming and triathlon meetings / workshops and loads of people I had never interacted with before. The excitement built up during the transition briefing and bicycle `racking’ (you need to have your bike checked and parked at the transition area a day before the race).

We spent the night in a hotel close to the start (my colleague Vivek always manages to get this done!). I could sleep without being nervous about getting late. The hour before the start was exciting; meeting the other participants in my age category and wishing all my old and new acquaintances good luck. That bonding over shared nervousness and the excitement of what was due to come is my best Ironman experience.

Finally, on race day – October 20th, we started.

Swimming was hell! The river that ends in the sea near the swimming course caused enormous drift. With us being inexperienced sea swimmers, that was hardly manageable. We were supposed to start with five people but most lines consisted of seven. We had to run about 200 meters before we could start swimming. I had heard about the ‘washing machine’ (the splashing effect and churn caused by many triathletes running into the water to commence their swim at the same time) and promptly fell into a tumble. While trying to get into rhythm I was hit on my head, arms and legs and pushed onto the ropes tied to the buoys. Luckily, I was not stung by jellyfish as many of my co swimmers were. Though I was trained to do the full 1.9 km freestyle, I soon decided to do breaststroke since it is easier to navigate and keep people at distance. Despite resorting to breaststroke I finished in 48 minutes; the swimming part was over before I knew it. When I reached the beach, ‘Don’t stop me now’, a fantastic song from the band Queen, was being played. It was so relevant that I shivered with happiness and sang out loud ‘coz we’re having such a good time, we’re having a ball.’

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Cycling was my biggest fear. I knew that I had to cycle faster than I had ever cycled before in my life. I did just that despite the fact that I felt almost every other participant overtook me and I overtook only a few people. Most of the cyclists pedaled at similar pace. So we kept meeting each other. Keeping in mind what I had learnt in the groups / workshops, I started hydrating after 15 minutes. I was also hoping that I would get through the race without a punctured tyre. Then I neglected the rule of ‘never trying something new in a race’ and enjoyed the hospitality along the course. For the first time in my life I had a ‘gel’. I also learned how to take a banana at 25km speed from a volunteer at the hydration point. I was as happy as a child when I mastered the art at stations that followed. During the third loop, I thought: perhaps I’m a real endurance athlete. I had commenced enjoying cycling after 60km. Coldplay’s song `Nobody said it was easy’ surfaced from my subconscious mind and I sang “No one ever said it would be so hard. I’m going back to the start’’ (which I changed to not going back). There had been a lot of chatter about the bike course. I had seen the route, so knew where the road was bad and where the inclines were. But since all of us face the same situation, I never found these discussions interesting. Given we raced without our phones, I had no idea how I was doing. My Garmin said that it had taken me 3:18:39 (as usual I started my device when I was already on the course) and thought that it was not bad.

I was looking forward to running. I dedicated my participation in the Ironman 70.3 to all the women of Pinkathon; 20th October was also Pinkathon Day and I had to miss the celebration in my locality: Tilak Nagar, Mumbai, where I am Pinkathon Ambassador. During the run in Goa, volunteers and audience responded to my Pinkathon t-shirt. Although I’m a runner and had done a few brick training sessions, running hit me hard. I got cramps in my vastus medialis (I didn’t even know that this was possible) but overcame that soon. I really enjoyed the hospitality along the course and discovered the joy of racing on Coke and chips (again I flouted the never try something new on race day-rule). The ice baths and cold sponges helped me finish in what was however, my worst 21 km time ever – 2:38:13. It was only after I got the armband upon completing the first lap (you receive an armband after every lap run) that I was able to place myself in the competition order. I didn’t notice that another participant in the P-category (women, 50-54 year) had overtaken me during the run.

At the award ceremony I realized that Vivek and I had accomplished what we set out to do. In my age category there was a participant who finished as the fastest woman in the race with 5:18:49. At ten participants, my age category was easy to oversee but just before the start, one of the women told me that the person in question was participating and we could forget winning the event. When I asked who that was, I was told she was a “six time winner in Hawaii.’’ I thought that it might be stupid to ask what happened in Hawaii. About an hour after the event (I was in the recovery zone), someone who had tracked me told me that I had finished third (in 6:57:27) and that Natasha Badmann, six time World Champion in Ironman had won the overall race and first position in my age group.

Photo: courtesy Corina Van Dam

Eventually during the award ceremony, I got the trophy for the second place. Assuming that there was a mix up, I said that I had secured the third position. It turned out, Natasha Badmann didn’t claim her’s so I got away with the trophy for second-position. Placed second, I had qualified for the World Championship slot for foreigners! Since the event had started half an hour late, there was change in the day’s schedule. One of the volunteers told me that the “ roll down ceremony” (where the places for the World Championships are given to those present) would start at 5PM. I was busy with friends who came all the way from Manipal to cheer me. I also spent time talking to other finishers. I thus arrived late at the roll down ceremony and the opportunity to participate at the Ironman World Championships went to someone else. Although I didn’t expect anything, I came to Goa with all the credit cards I had, just to stay prepared. In the end I could only be angry with myself. The feeling disappeared when I celebrated our finish with Vivek and his family.

Once I settled in my bed in the sleeper bus back to Mumbai, I realized what had happened and how many people had followed me that day: my family, my Pinkathon group, friends and colleagues. It was heart-warming to see all these people so engaged, enthusiastic and happy for me. The feeling continued for days. I was the center of parties and a flood of congratulations on WhatsApp and social media. I also realized that my timing was not bad and that I had completed the course faster than many of the other participants that I had got to know in the period prior to Ironman 70.3 Goa.

I spent two days celebrating, one day washing all my clothes, another day getting all Ironman stuff out of the way and then longed for running. During the first two rounds at Sahyadri Ground in Tilak Nagar, my body shouted at me: what are you doing? But once I got into rhythm, thoughts started creeping up: why don’t you upgrade to 100 miles for Aquaman 70.3? With Goa in your pocket, you’ve met their criteria. So, on the fourth day after Ironman 70.3, I arranged for my next adventure to be the Aquaman 100 miles triathlon.

I might be more of an endurance athlete than I thought, after all.

(The author, Corina Van Dam, works with Naz Foundation (India) Trust in Mumbai. For more on her please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2019/08/06/making-a-difference-with-sports/)

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