Photo: courtesy Nihal Baig

Mumbai-based triathlete, Nihal Baig, is not new to Ironman 70.3. The Goa edition of this triathlon – it was held in October 2019 – was his fourth outing in that line. He finished second overall including second place in his age category, 25-29 years.

Less than a month before Ironman 70.3 Goa, Nihal participated in Ironman 70.3 World Championships, Nice 2019. Prior to the event in Nice, he participated in Ironman 70.3 Bahrain and Ironman 70.3 Colombo. Of the three disciplines forming the triathlon, Nihal’s strength is in running. Earlier this year, Nihal had finished overall ninth and second in his age category of 18-24 years at Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM).

Here he recounts the training for Ironman 70.3 Goa and how things unfolded on race day.

During my B.Tech and M.Tech days at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, I was part of the athletics team. I used to participate in races over distances ranging from 400 meters to 5000 meters.

I finished my M.Tech in 2016. But I did not stop running. I continued it on the IIT Mumbai campus thanks to my being alumni. I moved to exploring longer distances, starting with half marathons. Around this time I took up employment in Mumbai. I work as Risk Associate at MSCI Inc. I started cycling to work, a distance of about nine kilometers from where I stay. Over time, I started to go for long rides.

At that time, I had heard about the Ironman triathlon. I was keen to explore it and began learning to swim. In October 2017, I did my first half Ironman distance-triathlon in Hyderabad.

What attracted me to the triathlon was that I got to do three sports in it instead of the usual one. And triathlon is all about fitness and endurance. I love how I get to push myself in these three disciplines. I have a lot to learn. I will keep doing that and try to get better with time.

The Ironman 70.3, also known as Half Ironman, is one of a series of long distance triathlon races organized by the World Triathlon Corporation. Following the event in Hyderabad, I went on to do Half Ironman in Bahrain and Colombo.

Less than a month before Ironman 70.3 Goa (it was the first Ironman event in India) I took part in the Ironman World Championships, held in Nice, France on September 8, 2019.

Photo: courtesy Nihal Baig

I started my training for Nice Ironman in March focusing mainly on swim technique. I trained under coach, Ashutosh Barve. Our weekly training sessions were done at the pool at IIT Mumbai in Powai. Swimming is my weakest sport in triathlon.

I also had to do most of my cycling sessions indoors. I did a couple of outdoor sessions in Pune. My priority for Nice World Championships was building power and learning technical bike skills. After the World Championships, I had all of five weeks to train for Goa Ironman. Of these, the first week was lost to recovery. In the available time, I decided to concentrate on getting more comfortable riding in aero-position. I had struggled with using the aerobars on my bicycle in previous races.

Running is my strong sport. I put in a lot of volume though I was not able to do track sessions because of rain. I was also unable to do speed workout because of a hip abductor injury. I acquired the hip abductor injury ahead of the Nice World Championships. Few weeks before the event, it was quite unbearable. However I recovered considerably as the world championships drew close. The cycling segment was tough, very technical and hilly. There were many sharp turns along the route, not to mention much elevation gain packed into the 90 kilometer-distance. I finished the World Championships in 5:29:02.

I did my training runs for Goa at the IIT Mumbai campus. I am aware of the road conditions there. So it was not difficult training outdoors during monsoon. In Goa, on the day of Ironman 70.3, I woke up early to have my breakfast two hours before the start of the race. At 7:30AM, the race commenced. When we got into the water for the swim segment, we realized there was a lot of sideways current. We were getting thrown towards the rope. Also, it was so crowded that our limbs were getting entangled with the rope. For quite some time I was stuck in one place. The swim segment of 1.9 kilometers was split into two loops. During my second loop I fared better. I did get stuck but I was prepared. During the first loop my pace was 2.35 minutes per 100 meters. In the second loop, the pace improved to 2.12 minutes per 100 meters. I finished the swim segment in 45 minutes and 16 seconds against my target of 40 minutes.

From the swim to the bike segment, the transition distance was about 900 meters. We had to sprint to get to our bikes. But the crowd and volunteer support was so good. Many of them were calling out my name and cheering me. That helped me a lot. I was in a positive frame of mind when I got on to the bike. Suddenly, the disappointment of the swim seemed like a distant past.

I had got myself a Cervelo P4. During the cycling segment, I chose not to use any HR or power devices to track my effort. I just went by feel. We had to cover the distance of 90 kilometers in three loops. I pushed a lot on the bike segment. I stuck to a uniform pace for most part of the race though the road condition was not great. For about 30 kilometers at the end of the bike leg race, I rode with only one aerobar. But the cheering by volunteers and the crowds was awesome. I finished the cycling segment in two hours, 31 minutes and 57 seconds. Although I had done better at Colombo Ironman earlier this year, I would rate the cycling I did at Goa my best so far. Further, Colombo was a flat route with roads in much better condition. My training for Nice certainly helped me at Goa.

Photo: courtesy Nihal Baig

When I finished the swim portion, I was 15th in my age category and 118th overall. At the end of the bike segment, I was second in my age category and seventh overall.

I decided to go hard on the run segment. I was confident of maintaining my position. I started at 3:55 pace and when it started to get hot I slowed down slightly. My pace was between 3:55 and 4. We had to cover the half marathon distance of the run segment in three loops and in each of these loops we had to negotiate a steep and a long climb. At the start of the third loop, I was in fourth position. The person who was leading had to slow down as he had hit the wall.

I finished the Goa Ironman in 4:47:47, placing second overall and second in my age category of 25-29 years.

Going forward, my focus will shift to training for the 2020 Tata Mumbai Marathon.

(Nihal Baig spoke to Latha Venkatraman, independent journalist based in Mumbai.)

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