Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Powerman Zofingen 2013 Long Distance World Championships - A race of ups and downs. Get it?

25th anniversary edition of POWERMAN ZOFINGEN

A Canadian’s Race Report

Disclaimer: This became an unexpectedly loooong report, more like a rambling of everything I can recall. If you don’t have the time, skim through it or come back later. If you’re bored out of your mind, and generally would rather be avoiding something you should do, then grab a cup of tea and read on!
This is going to be a difficult race report to write. There are too many things that transpired on race day. I went through the whole spectrum of feelings: control, panic, being in the zone, strong, a lot of suffering, pain, mental dodge-balls and some tears of joy.
I will try to not make this about numbers like usual, and more about the day itself.

With that said, I’ll get started with how things went yesterday…


Its Switzerland. How do you expect it to be like? :D

Finally in Zofingen!
Zofingen in nice weather a few days before the race

Photo credit: Dan Hopper (


On race morning, I arrived with plenty of time, roughly 2 hours before my start (women started 1 hour before the men). But surprisingly, it was silent at the transition area. Weird. No familiar voice of Steve Fleck giving us weather snippets or reminding us that there are HERO burgers after the race. Oh wait, I didn’t need reminders for that, never mind!
Then I remembered, this is Europe, and this is a small Swiss town that only comes alive a few days of the year for this race. There are probably noise laws to keep the neighborhood families fast asleep on a Sunday morning!
Race kit goodies. Complete with a multipurpose lube spray can!
Cockpit view
CLIF bar train..complete with directions! Lol...
All set.
At 8 am, the commentators voice crackled over the speakers. It started off with some 90’s euro dance music for about 5 mins and all US/UK athletes (Team Canada included..uhh, me!) just laughed with incredulous looks. Then they started off with the welcoming speeches and commentary in at least 4 languages (English, French, Swiss-German and Spanish, I think). Now we’re talking. The race was alive!

RUN 1:

Here’s how the first run looks like:

 Err…what? You climb up a 10% hill for the first 2 kms? And then again after 5 kms? 

Sure enough, I was worried about pushing too much for this first run and suffering later, so I actually did a 10 min/2 km warm-up to wake up my legs and allow me to gauge my effort better on this first run.
As the gun went off, the fast athletes shot up like this was pancake flat. Wow. I shuffled up the hill and kept my HR in check. 165 BPM at the top. This is too high. 

This is where the steep part starts. 14%.


Photo credit: Dan Hopper (

Flew by a lot of people while going downhill I wanted to say “You just need to let your legs go, guys! Holding back with your quads hurts more!!” But what do I know? I’m a newbie at this hilly stuff.

After the first lap was done in 20’ish minutes. On track. Check.
Second lap began and I was greeted by a Swiss cheer new to me: “HOP! HOP! HOP!” (equivalent to “Go! Go! Go!” or “Allez! Allez! Allez!”).


Going up the 2k climb this time around, my HR was creeping up. 167 BPM. That’s no good. Stop. Here I was, 22 minutes into a 8 hour race, and I forced myself to walk up the remaining steepest part. I had never walked any part of a race before, so this was a new feeling. Sad, I know, but I wasn’t ready to blow my entire day because I roared up a hill for a few minutes in the beginning. Apparently, two other people liked my idea and joined me in the short 1 minute walk. Of course, once we started running as the gradient flattened a bit, we passed a whole lot of people. It all felt too easy, which it should. And so the prologue of this race was over relatively quickly.

Transition 1:

Coming in, I saw all bike racks around me empty. Nice, I’m in last place in my AG already! Got some work to do!
Pretty smooth otherwise, I didn’t sight my bike properly coming into transition, so I lost a few seconds trying to find it. After 2-something lethargic minutes here, I was out on my bike. Must. Have. More. Urgency!



The bike ride is what I feared the most in this race, even though it’s the second run that determines how well you do overall. Its 3 laps of a 50 km route. Each lap has 3 climbs, each good enough to be a Cat 3/4/5 climb in the professional cycling ranks, interspersed by one or two steep/technical downhill sections (where you have to brake constantly to avoid going in the ditch) and gradual downhills (keep pedaling hard to maintain momentum). If your body is trashed after the bike ride, frankly, the 2nd run will kill you without mercy. With ~7200 ft of climbing in total on the bike, I had good reason to be apprehensive. Oh that and the fact that my biking sucks compared to my run…so I have to minimize the damage.

Lap 1 (0 – 50 kms)
During this first lap, my plan was simple: get my HR down after the 1st run, steady the ship and take it as EASY as possible. Most of the times, it should seem way too easy. It did. I just wanted to find my groove and get on top of my nutrition plan, which looked like this:

That’s a lot of eating! And to make sure I can eat, my stomach needs to settle and HR to stay low. I planned to eat anytime I was going downhill and drink water/Gatorade any time I was going uphill. I was a bit skeptical about this at first, but it worked out to be a good strategy. As usual, despite being in the bottom half of the ranks after the first run, people still blew by me on this first lap. I knew that these are either great cyclists, or poor pacers who will crawl by the 3rd lap. I paid no attention. 

On the first climb, I forced myself slow down to 14-15 km/hr and use my humongous 30T gear. Most would laugh at my puny 34T/30T gear ratio, but I was the only one sitting in my saddle on climbs and not standing up to mash the pedals. The Bodenburg was fine the first time around. It definitely helped that I knew when to anticipate changing gears, thanks to my recon lap a few days ago…I was doing 9 km/hr for the most part of the climb. The last climb of the lap is not as steep (maybe 5-7%) as the Bodenburg and turns out to later become my favorite part of the course, with 3-4 switchbacks and steady climbing (15-20 km/hr).
My legs generally felt awkward during this lap and my power was well below my goal of 170W (2.4 W/kg) on downhills and 230W (3.2 W/kg) on uphills. No matter, my RPE was good and HR was slowly coming down. Keep on eating and drinking.

Lap 2 (50 – 100 kms)

On the second lap, as I approached the first climb again, I passed Rich Shirley who is in my Age Group. An inspiring guy from the UK. His story may sound clichĂ©d, but its no ordinary feat to lose 100 lbs of weight and completely turn your life around to complete one of the toughest Ironmans (Ironman UK) and compete as part of the UK national team here in Zofingen. As I found out later, he was not having a good day today. Alright! I’m not last in my AG anymore!
I saw 3 kids who cheered me on with more “Hop! Hop! Hop!”, I gave them a smile but then as I got closer, they held out their arms and waved their hands, I obliged by high fiving them and they were over the moon! As I passed, I heard an incredulous “Waouw! Kanada!!”
In the zone.
Went over the first climb pretty smoothly, just like the first lap, I forced myself to use my 30T cog. Smoked the downhill, and I found myself once again at the bottom of the Bodenburg beast. Now I find out whether I have the legs to have a good ride today or not. Same strategy as before, maintain momentum, start using a lower gear if my cadence falls under 68-70 RPM until I get to the 30T, then hang on. Success. Went up this time a touch faster than last time.
It was raining pretty steadily by now, the road was slippery and the opposing high-speed traffic made for some goose bumps due to occasional wind gusts. In the first few kms of this lap, the road is a little bumpy, and my remaining 3 bars of the CLIF bar train flew off. Shit. Well, I had thought this might happen because the tapes don't hold the bars well in this consistent rain. I had a back up mental plan and made sure to eat and drank regularly despite the 3 CLIF bars I lost. I had made some progress by grabbing 1 gel and 1 bar along with a bottle of water at the top of the Bodenburg. Now only 400 kCal behind my plan.
I also passed Daniel Hopper, a talented athlete coming all the way from Australia. He was much stronger than me on the bike. He was also not having a good day. I haven’t figured out what happened to him yet, but I think it was a combination of bike mechanical or nutritional issues.

Lap 3 (100 – 150 kms)

At last, time to unleash the legs, I thought. Slowly but surely, I started picking off people in front of me. I passed a few people in my AG as well. A lot of people were absolutely toast. They were clearly redlining each climb and coasting downhills. I made further ground on my nutrition, with another 2 gels at the last aid station, I was back on track.
My plan was to allow myself to stand up to gain momentum on the hills If I wanted to, and I attacked the first hill with a breeze. Even faster than the first 2 laps. Then came the Bodenburg, for the last time, I wanted to conquer this monster. I was getting stronger and stronger as time passed and my HR didn’t budge from 140-143 BPM, maxing out at 150-151 BPM (a whole 14 BPM lower than the first lap!!). Once I made it past the timing chip at the end of the first steep part, the second and the steepest part (between 15-18% for 100m, and 10-12% average over 1 km) remained. I finally attacked and made it to the top of the Bodenburg 500m before the aid station well over 1 minute faster than the first two laps. Everything was going well.
I reached the aid station through the trees and threw my old bottles to reach out for a refill of water and Gatorade with my right hand. And that’s when my whole race changed.

A guy passed me on my left, swerved in front of me and tried to reach for the same bottle I was reaching out for. He missed it and tried to get the next one. He then suddenly slowed down, my front wheel was inches away from his rear wheel. I braked with my left hand reflexively, which was on the bars since my right hand was still outstretched for a bottle. My front wheel locked and before I knew it, I smacked the pavement hard instantly. It all happened way too fast, maybe within 1-2 seconds.

I got up and saw my knee was bleeding. No matter, how is my bike? :D Everything seemed fine so I shrugged it off, grabbed a bottle of water and got back on. One pedal stroke later, I realize my brakes are rubbing. OK. No big deal, I get off, adjust my caliper which probably moved from the crash and get back on. Still rubbing. OK, I get off one more time and it looks like my brake pads are actually tilted inward a bit, so I take my multi-tool out and loosen the cable. I thought: “I’ll just have to ride the last 27 km downhill on my rear brake alone, so I’ll just go slower. No problem, stay calm”.
1 minute later, I get back on the bike and find out that it didn’t help at all and I’m still braking with every pedal. Dismount one more time. “OK, I’ll take a good look this time”. I inspected the rear wheel, the cassette, my shifters/cables…everything seemed to be okay. By this time the volunteers who had helped me get up after my crash were surrounding me, trying to help. One of them neatly pointed out: “Your wheel wire! It sticks out!”. His sub-par English was enough to make me realize that he was pointing to a spoke in my front wheel, which clearly snapped from the hub. I asked them to help me break it off so it doesn’t hit the brakes. Success. I thanked them and mounted the bike one more time. Same result. Now I was frustrated. Then I found the real culprit. It was not just my spoke that broke off, but my front Zipp 404 was utterly out of true. Bent. Totaled.

Now I knew my race was over. This wheel can’t be fixed with some small tools, and it most likely is trashed. I got off one more time and tried to ask someone for a replacement wheel. No luck.
Just as luck turns out, Surabhi (my sister-in-law) had convinced me to take my spare wheels with me as a precaution in case the rainy conditions make me nervous and slip in the downhills. These spare wheels were kept with the “bike doctor” station near the start/finish/lap area, which, was 27 kms away from where I was.
A few minutes later, an official car came up, I flagged them down…asked them if they can bring me a replacement wheel from the transition area. They said they can’t help me, and they can take me to the finish line to get the wheel to bring it back, but then I would obviously be disqualified. I argued with them without luck for a few minutes. Now I stopped my stopwatch for a few minutes as I was obviously not getting back on the road any time soon. They offered to give me some first aid and bandages, but I refused. Then the officials said that although they aren’t allowed to help me, any volunteer/spectator can.
I then lifted my bike on my shoulder and started walking some 200m to the nearest spectators. A couple of guys with 2 mountain bikes were there, waiting for their friend to come through so they can cheer for him. They had no way to help me. I even asked them to loan me their mountain bikes in exchange for my Cervelo (rest assured, I would come back for my retardedly expensive bike!). No dice. I kept walking with my bike on my shoulder, on foot, to the next couple of people who couldn’t help me either since it would take them a good 2 hours to drive to transition area and bring my wheel. I walked back to the aid station and the medical tent, dejected. I knew my chances of finishing the race now, were next to zero.
Turns out I walked nearly 3 kms with my bike on my shoulder back and forth asking people for help. I don't believe it actually, but thats what it says...
I allowed the nurses to clean me up this time, wrap some bandage, and they gave me blankets. I was shivering pretty badly now, all the body heat from exercise was gone, and the cold rain was chilling my bones. Suddenly, everything hurt. My back, my right shoulder, neck all started complaining at the same time. A part of me accepted that there’s nothing I can do anymore but just wait for the next official car to come along and carry me back. I pictured a “DNF” (= Did Not Finish) next to my name in the results and cringed inside. Did I really come this far, put in so many hours, sacrificed so many chances of good times with my family/Garima/other stuff only to be held back by a broken wheel?
I tried to remain optimistic. I chatted to the medical/aid station volunteers. One of them had good enough English to communicate, and we started talking. He was half-Swiss half-Indian, by chance, and his name was Mr. Sahdev (with roots in Amritsar!!). His daughter was also there, volunteering, and very patient while staying calm as I blabbered rapidly in English. I took my shoes/helmet off and took some pictures as I tried to take my mind off the pain and cold. Throughout the day, I was awed by how beautiful this course was, and now I got to soak in the scenery. I took some pictures!
Top of the Bodenburg
Look carefully and you'll see a missing spoke.
Medical staff that taped me up.
The road rash itself wasnt that bad, but I found out there was a big nasty bruise under it the next day...
My temporary saddle for two hours, and a blanket!

I must’ve struck a chord with those guys, because Mr. Sahdev’s daughter kept calling race officials and bike mechanics to see if anything could be done to help me finish this thing. 

About 75 minutes after I had crashed, she came running to me and said: “Your wheel is on the way, it will be here in 30 mins!”. I was excited! Then I thought, “Shit! Now I’ll have to do that stupid 30 km hilly run after all!!”

Almost 2 hours after I stopped, I got my wheel, and thanked/hugged all aid station volunteers that made this possible. Right before leaving, one of them calmly informed me that I had about 30 mins left to make the cutoff time for the bike leg before they open the roads to traffic and disqualify me automatically. Some quick math told me that 27 km in 30 mins is 54 km/hr, which is impossible, even though its mostly downhill (and the 3rd climb thrown in). But the sag wagon (the last official car which was patrolling the course shutting things down as it went along) was not there yet. They had already dismantled all the aid station equipment and were packing things up. 
Mr. Sahdev!
Mr. Sahdev's daughter helping me put the replacement wheel on! Thanks!
I pedaled off to the encouraging “Hop! Hop! Hop!” once more. Then I rode like a mad man, probably taking more risks on the downhills than I should have! I had enough motivation, because the sag wagon had caught up and was right behind me, with its lights flashing! If it passed me, I knew I would not make the bike cut off. Of course, it figures that now for the first time in the race, I had a noticeable headwind (it had only been 5-7 km/hr winds all day so far). Sure enough, the sag wagon overtook me during the last climb, and I rolled into Transition about 7-8 mins after the cut off (~40 km/hr average including the climb!!). I was sad at this point, to have come this far only to be told I’m done because of an arbitrary time cut off…it’s not like I was out on the road and unsafe holding up traffic.
Getting on with the last climb after getting my replacement front wheel!
But as I reached the dismount line, I heard deafening cheers from everyone! And to my surprise, they let me in to T2 for continuing the race!!
You can see part of the time stopped on the third lap.
For the geeks out there:
  • AP/NP: 184W/191W
  • IF: ~0.77
  • VI: 1.04

Transition 2:

One guy came running to me with my broken wheel and encouraged me to go on, and he told me that the organizers had heard what happened to me and decided to make an exception, to let me continue. I also heard a woman calling out for me:
“Hey Canada! I was the one who arranged for your spare wheel to be sent to you!”
I thanked her.
They gave some attention to my wounds, and after a leisurely 4 mins in transition, I began the toughest 30 km run course there is.
I was DFL in the whole event at this point ( = Dead F****** Last), but I didn’t care. I’m going to finish this.


RUN 2:

Once the initial uplift from the race arena was behind me, I entered the forest once more. There was no cheering here. Damn, this first 2k uphill is no joke. I was moving well, but this climb was just silly. Who came up with an idea of a 10%-15% hill in the first few kilometers after a 150 km hilly ride? Masochists! Then I smiled for the first time that day.

 Lap 1 – 15 km
Amazingly, I kept on top of my nutrition and passed A LOT of people, most had to be on their second lap by that time, so I didn’t know if I was actually making up any ranks or if I was still in last place.
Each lap has roughly 1150 ft of climbing (so 2300 ft in total, yikes!), and like the bike ride, there is not more than about 200m of flat section in total. It was also raining. That means mud, and running water in the trails. But I quickly discovered that I loved running in the trails. I was afraid of slipping in the mud and falling off at times, but I made it through the first lap rather uneventfully in 1:12 mins. That’s a pretty good pace. My original race plan had me doing laps in 1:08/1:12 for a total run time of 2:20, so this was surprising given the 1.5-2 hour break (stiff muscles), the road rash and pain in my back and shoulders.
Somewhere lost in the woods on the first lap...
Lap 15 – 30 km
At the start of the second lap, I knew this last hour would hurt. Starting off with the ridonkulous 2 km steep uphill, I looked down at the ground and kept on plodding.
The pain in my knee was suddenly engulfed by a pain in my right groin, which was uncomfortable after the crash, and I only realized now that I had probably strained my adductors/abs during the fall, and was not helping it by all this running. So I walked for about 50 meters to let it subside before I pushed it out of my head.
After about 21 kms, with 9 km to go, and all the hard parts of the run mostly over, it suddenly dawned on me that I would actually finish this.  
All of a sudden, I was overcome with emotion as I realized this is nothing like I wanted it to be, felt like all my preparation was a waste if I had to finish in 9:50. It was all negative, then I remembered my parents telling me how proud they were, and all messages from my cousins, co-workers, friends who were awed by what I was doing, my nephews/nieces who know me as a crazy fit and playful uncle, everyone supported me 100%. I walked. In the forest through the trees with no one around me in the middle of a foreign country where no one knew who I was. I didn’t walk that long, maybe 2-3 mins…it’s not like I was going to win a prize for my finishing time. Am I really here? Does it matter if I came 3rd or 4th in my AG? Will my beloved nephews/nieces care if I came in last or what would they think if I DNF’d?
I started running again. After this mental crisis, I remembered my mental prep pre-race: “If your attitude about the race changes, EAT!” So I downed one last Powerbar Gel (Double Latte caffeine!) and sure enough, a few minutes later, I went through a hill top section near the turnaround that overlooked the finishing area some 5 km’s away, I looked at the horizon, saw the Alps soaring over clouds on one side and deers (and maybe even a moose looking creature?!) grazing on the other side. I couldn’t help but smile for the next few minutes.
I gained an altogether different level of respect for the people who finish near the bottom of the ranks. Theirs is a truly solitary race with their body and minds. Apart from the sound of their feet, today there was rain, mud and rustling of trees in a forest. None of them were competing for wins, but all of them tried to run as much as they could. I had long stopped running with my legs and ran purely with these thoughts. I didn’t put any effort physically in these last few km’s, I was mentally drained. My HR said Zone 1, but my mind was racing. The down hills didn’t feel like stabbing knives in my quads anymore. Some few spectators that saw and cheered for me near the 24/25 km point just looked perplexed because I was one of the last finishers that was actually running strong, and had a big smile on my face. Hop hop hop!
As I crossed the finish line, I remembered pointing to my name on the jersey and saying “BAGGA CAN!”…then just like my first Iron distance duathlon in 2011, I let go at the finish line and couldn’t stop sobbing like a little girl. Damn finish line pics always capture the meltdown. Drats.

Falling apart...
Mentally spent. That's the race director next to me.

Final Stats:

  • Run 1 official time: 43:04
  • Official Bike time: 6:28:46
  • Actual Bike Time: ~4:45 – 4:52 (not exactly sure how much time I wasted because I left my watch running initially while I walked around for help and trying to sort out the problems, after which I hit stop when I thought my race was over and then re-started again after 15 mins because I wanted to keep feeling like I was still in the race…)
  • Run 2 official time: 2:30:18
  • Run 2 actual time: 2:27 (+3 mins walking/spacing out!)
  • ITU AG Rank: 8/8
  • ITU Rank across all ages: 153/168 (+21 DNF’s) ... not DFL after all!
  • Overall AG rank: 18/18
  • Overall Rank across all long distance AG athletes: 300/330 (+34 DNF’s)
My actual workout time was somewhere between 7:50 and 8:05 if I subtract the time wasted waiting on the Bodenburg. That would’ve put me as 4th in my M25-29 Age Group (in the WORLD! Woah!). Of course, the what if’s are just what they are. What if’s. I may have blown up and crawled to the finish line in 10 hours had nothing gone wrong with the bike ride at all, or I may have sped up to beat the guy in 3rd place (7:42). All I know is that despite the crash and the aftermath, my actual running time would’ve been good for 4th place. I’ll take that as my consolation prize!

Post Race:


At the finish line, the race director (Stefan Ruf) asked me how my knee started bleeding and I told him I had to wait for nearly 2 hours on top of the Bodenburg. Then he recognized who I was and took a picture of me.
I went straight to the medical tent to be taped up and sterilize my knee gash. To my surprise, I was sent straight out of the medical area by the Swiss nurse who sternly told me to go take a shower first!!
I stumbled away to find my belongings from the rental lockers nearby and took a shower in the adjacent arena locker rooms. Came back like a clean giddy school kid clenching my shiny medal and then got all taped up and bandaged.
Then I had the amazing Beef soup with bread and talked to a South African athlete (Mr. Cronje?) and exchanged stories of the fabled Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Maybe someday? Oh no! The seed is planted!!


After eating, I went back to take my bike out of transition. I created a nice little scene there…
Basically, the race crew gave me my broken front wheel back and put it next to my bike. However, the rear wheel of the SPARE set of wheels I had brought for insurance (i only used the front spare wheel), was nowhere to be found. After several phone calls by the race director (Stephen Areggor), hunting down trunks of race support vehicles, I found my wheel 2 hours later, at nearly 9 pm.
Now it was time to go and attend the formal award ceremony as post-race buffet. Due to the wheel finding saga, there was no chair left for me to sit on. I stood by the side and took a few pics of the AG and overall winners. Grabbed some food but since I couldn’t find a seat and had to catch a train back to my hostel in Basel (runs once every hour), and then pack to leave for Frankfurt the next day, I went out to the Zofingen train station.
I was still hungry so I went to a convenience store and chomped down THREE full bars of 70% dark Lindt chocolate!
Right as I was about to board my train, a few US athletes also came to the platform. We chatted for a minute before they recognized me as the only Canadian athlete. Then they told me that the race director, Stefan Ruf, had made some sort of announcement about how I completed the race at the awards ceremony after I had left. Ah well, missed my 2 seconds of fame!
I sincerely want to thank the organizers:
  • Stefan Ruf: for letting me continue the race, acknowledging me at the finish line and also at the awards ceremony.
  • Stephan Areggor: For helping me find my spare rear wheel at night after the race!
  • Mr. Sahdev and his daughter: Wherever you are, I hope you read this. Thank you for doing all that you did, just to see me continue the race.
  • Weishaupt Cycles: For arranging my spare wheel to be sent to the top of the Bodenburg while I was in limbo.
  • Joyce Chiang and Triathlon Canada: For giving me this opportunity to represent Canada even though no one else signed up. I hope to redeem Canada’s name from this last place finish, sometime in the future!
  • Tracey Elliott/Bodytrace: For the most awesome massages that left me feeling like new after especially hard races/workouts throughout the year.
  • My employer, for understanding my passions/commitments outside work, and generally being very accommodating.
Certainly not in the least:
  • My close and extended family: for raising and encouraging a hell-bent stubborn kid like me!
  • Garima: Well, you’re my personal race crew. None of this would be possible without you.
For those unfamiliar to this crazy endurance lifestyle: believe it or not, this adventure of mine is not a one-off exceptional story. Just my first one. There are blind people who do these races with a guide, there was a guy at this race who only had ONE arm. I’ve seen people without legs, do a triathlon, even Ironman. There are 70 year old’s who do this. The list goes on. Nearly everyone in this sport has heard inspirational stories of these people. Heck, I saw a really old person, who finished the race 1 hour after me, lying on a stretcher with an IV drip and all sorts of gizmo’s attached to him in the medical tent as I got my knee taped up. I am continuously humbled by these people…I had no reason to stop the race just because of a stupid broken front wheel and a few scratches!

So when do you give up?

Every kind of athlete, long or short distance, knows that if you want it bad enough, unless the body stops you……Never.

(In tri-speak, HTFU!)

Keep Pedaling.


  1. I am super proud of you. I am genuinely moved reading this and do confess I've never done something this crazy and demanding but I can imagine how you must have felt. Well done Sunny!

  2. Heartfelt warm wishes for you. you are an extremely bright, determined and loving boy! And this write-up of your experience is truly inspiring. Stay blessed!

  3. Thank you both for your kind words!