FROM SECOND TO FIRST WITH A PB TO BOOT

Nihal Ahamad Baig; at the finish line of the 2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Nihal Ahamad Baig was overall winner of the 2022 edition of the Ironman 70.3 held in Goa. He completed the triathlon in a personal best (PB) of four hours, 29 minutes and 45 seconds to place first.

In terms of break-up in performance across the triathlon’s three disciplines, Nihal finished eighteenth in swimming, ninth in cycling and first in running.

Second place overall went to Bishworjit Saikhom (4:37:21). Pankaj Dhiman (4:40:41) finished third.

The Ironman in Goa falls in the category of a Half Ironman aka Ironman 70.3 (70.3 miles or 113 km overall consisting of 1.9 km-swim, 90 km-bike ride and 21.1 km-run). In the previous edition of the race in 2019, Bishworjit (4:42:44) had placed first and Nihal (4:47:47), second.

Nihal who has been featured before on this blog, spoke to Latha Venkatraman, a few days after the competition in Goa in mid-November. The following is a description of Nihal’s passage to the event in 2022 and his experience on race day, narrated from the athlete’s point of view:

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / Back on land after the swim segment in the sea (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

Towards the latter part of 2021, my focus was on running with a little bit of cycling as well in the mix. Swimming was completely off as due to the pandemic swimming pools were shut.

Around the end of 2021, I started swimming in a lake as I was set to participate in the 70.3 Bergman Triathlon at Kolhapur in January 2022. That race went well (Nihal won this race). Thereafter, I was focused on the Berlin Marathon. I had registered for the race in Germany. Until early September my focus was on running. I cycled mainly for cross-training and I still wasn’t doing much swimming.

At the end of August 2022, I felt burnt-out from the training. I stopped training. I decided not to go for the Berlin Marathon, which was slated for end of September 2022. I was not enjoying my workouts. I thought it was prudent to stop training. But the burn-out did not disappear fast. For a week I stopped training completely. Yet I did not feel better. Then, I started swimming and began feeling okay. I was able to focus on my swimming. From the middle of September till the end of the month I swam regularly. After that I went home to Guntur in Andhra Pradesh for three weeks. I took my bicycle with me. I could not swim there because there is no pool. I did some strength training and cycling. I was there till October 25.

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / From the cycling segment (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

When I returned, I had just 20 days left for the Ironman 70.3 in Goa. There wasn’t much time. I started running, cycling and swimming. I also did a few key workouts. I was not specifically training for Ironman. I had been training throughout the pandemic doing one or the other of the disciplines constituting the triathlon. I was fit. I decided to attempt the triathlon in Goa on the strength of my fitness, which I had developed over the earlier months.

In terms of weather, it was hotter this time and humid. Last time in Goa, because of the continuous showers in the run-up to the race it was much cooler. But sea conditions were rough last time compared to this time when the sea was much calmer. In 2022, there were no currents. The conditions for swimming were better. I did the swim segment in much better timing compared to the last time.

However, weather conditions for cycling and running were harsher. The overall temperature was higher. This time there was significant change in the cycling route. There was a lot of rolling hills and some elevation to tackle. Most of the route was through highways, which made progress faster. That was offset by the elevation, which made things tough. Because of lack of adequate training, I could not push much in the cycling segment. At the same time, I did not lose much ground here. Pablo Erat from Switzerland was strong in the bike segment. He had a 15-minute lead on the bike. He was there in the 2019 edition of the race and had done well in the swim and the bike segments.

2022 Ironman 70.3 Goa / From the run (Photo: courtesy Nihal)

By the time I started running it was quite hot. The race started at 7:40 AM. I got to the running portion at 10:45 AM. The sun was out. Last time, it was overcast and slightly windy and that had helped. I knew that if I pushed too hard while running, I may hit a wall. I started at a conservative pace. When I started running, I was in seventh position overall. I was sure I would cover this gap. Pablo was ahead of me but with time he started to slow down. After the first loop, Bishworjit Saikhom, the previous edition’s winner, was ahead of me. During the second loop I was able to overtake Bishworjit at the eighth kilometre-mark. After overtaking Bishworjit, I was still second. Pablo was about 8-10 minutes ahead of me. I pushed slightly to see how well I would be able to cover the gap. When I was at around 10 kilometres, I saw Pablo slowing down considerably. At that point I knew that I would be able to take the lead soon. It happened at around 12.5 kilometres. At this point I knew that if I could hold my pace, I would win the race. I slowed down in the third lap due to a sensation of cramps around my inner thighs but by then I knew my pace was considerably better than others and so I won’t get passed.

Ironman 70.3 Goa is a tough event. I have done Bahrain Ironman, which boasts the fastest course in the world. In 2019 I did Colombo Ironman, which was as challenging as Goa though the bike route was pretty much flat. I am mentally in a good space now. I think I should start my training again. I want to focus on marathons and triathlons. I plan to train for both simultaneously. I haven’t done a full Ironman yet. I might do one soon but I haven’t decided when and which race to attempt.

(The author, Latha Venkatraman, is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.)