The death last Sunday of Miguel Vasquez while swimming the Ironman 70.3 race in Camarines Sur was shocking. It was tragic. But apart from that horrifying story, there were plenty of good news to report. Topping them all was Noy Jopson, who has called Cebu home for many years now since marrying fellow triathlete Amale Mendezona. Among the hundreds of Filipino competitors in CamSur, Nonoy emerged No.1.
A winner of three triathlon National titles, the Asian Cup Junior trophy in 1995, the bronze and silver medals at the Asian Championships and the Phil. Enduraman title, I asked Noy to compare last Sunday with the past.
“I would say this is a bit above all of those,” he said. “Not just because this is the biggest ever race in the Philippines, but because of the way I had to earn the title. The Pinoy men’s top 3 left all our hearts out on the course: Peter Gonzales was only 20 seconds behind me and 3rd placer Ferdinand Catabian was less than a min.
“I had to do the sprint of my life the last 500m just to beat these guys and, at the end of a 4.5-hour race, you are going flat out the whole time. It’s a pretty intense effort, physically and emotionally. The feeling as I crossed that finish line first was a huge explosion of joy!”
For 20 years now, Noy has swam-biked-ran. This triathlon victory is extra special, he says, because of “the culmination of months of specific preparation and a lifetime of dedication and love for the sport. It’s been a while since I won a big one then, all of a sudden, Hey, I just won the grand daddy of em’ all!”
“There will never be another first Philippine Ironman 70.3 Champion, and nobody can take that title away from me,” he adds. “It’s historic. It sort of cements my legacy in the sport to cap all the career highlights. And yet I’m not done with the sport yet. But if I never win another race again in my life, I’d still be happy with what I’ve accomplished because of this. So it’s really HUGE!”
I then asked Noy for a blow-by-blow account… “I had a good swim, coming out with Arland Macasieb (the first Filipino to break 10 hours in an Ironman) who was my benchmark for the event. Other Pinoy elites like Ferdie Catabian and Noel Salvador were ahead of us but in the same pack so I was happy I didn’t waste so much energy; pretty fresh at the end of the swim and ready to make a solid effort on the bike.
“I raced conservatively on the bike first half because I wanted to do a good run and not have a repeat of last year’s Whiterock cramp feast. Still did the turn midway at 45km mark in 1 hr 7mins, so we were rocking at over 40kph, slowed down because of strong winds on the return, but ended up catching Noel towards the end of the bike and was surprised to look behind and see that Arland and Ferdie have been dropped. Was lifted up by the crowds as we entered CWC with me leading the charge for the Pinoys!”
Then it hit! “On the run I came out of transition with the women’s leaders Lisa Bentley and Gina Kerr and was holding a good pace but I felt my quads tighten and cramp badly after 1K. I had to slow down and nurse the cramp. Sure enough Noel came by me at the 3K mark running fresh. I told him, “Go for it Noel!” because at that point, I thought even just finishing would be a tough challenge, a podium a distant possibility but victory was out of the question. “At least, one Pinoy was still holding the banner up high,” I thought to myself, still wondering what happened to Arland.
“I breathed deeply, preparing myself to run through the cramps. I never dared walk as I was sure the drastic change of muscle movement will lock everything up. Whenever I felt my quads easing a bit, my calves would start to buckle; whenever I relaxed, my quads flared up again… for a kilometer. At this point, I prayed with all my might. I didn’t pray for victory, but prayed that I would finish this journey and get to the finish: “Lord, please don’t let everything lock up. Please give me strength to endure all the pain. Please let me salvage something good from this race.
“I looked at my Timex watch and saw it was 15mins since I started running, told myself, “Just jog until the turn around,” then “Slowly open up your stride. See if you can get some sort of rhythm and maybe then the cramps would go away.” They never did throughout the run, but curiously though they didn’t get any worse either and I was able to get some sort of rhythm. I found my stride almost as I hit the turn around at the 5k point, surprised to find that Duane (the Kiwi who beat me for 3rd at WRT) and Noel who were running together at this point, were just lingering about two mins ahead. They weren’t completely dropping me, and the bigger surprise was that none of the other Pinoys have come up to me either. Ferdie was looking strong about two mins behind me, but looking even stronger was Peter who had already overtaken Arland. We all exchange words of encouragement.
“I focused on trying to keep the gap to Noel at a reasonable level, figured this was a good strategy to keep at least a podium spot. The pain was still a bit too much at this point to even think I had a chance at winning back the lead but at least I took solace that I was still in the mix for a podium. On the way back to the lake I noticed Duane had already dropped Noel, and that he was crisscrossing the course to try to run under as much shade as possible. Though this was a sound strategy, I told myself that this was a sign of weakness and that if I was patient maybe later on he would be the one to fade. So I maintained a weird but effective shuffle of a run and was so happy to see Amale as we entered the lake, I could see she was worried that I lost the lead to Noel, so I told her I’m OK despite some bad cramping, that I felt that I was in control. She gave out a yell as I ran away to the distance, “Open up your stride hun!” and true enough as a dutiful husband I focused on that. Around the lake at the 10k mark I saw that my split was 47mins for the first 10k, wow, first big positive news of the run, with severe cramping, and this extreme heat, I’m only 2mins slower than my target race pace, no wonder I’m still in 2nd and no one else has come up to me yet, “I’m actually running ok, despite everything,” I told myself. 400m later, as we exit the lake at the far side, I was able to close the gap to 25m and my wife’s look of worry turned to hope and a smile. “Go daddy!” She says with Mikele waving a flag. “Daddy win the race!” and I smile at them back which was a lot better than grimacing.
“Just past the 13k mark I passed Noel almost exactly where he passed me a lap earlier. This time no words were spoken, we were both extremely focused on our own pain and cramping management strategies. I guess we both knew anything can still happen, we can still win but so can the four other guys chasing us. So there I was with 8k to go back in the lead and the aid stations and crowds were the best I have ever experienced in any race. I got everything they were giving, gels, lots of water, Gatorade, and soaked sponges that we would put inside our tri suits to keep cool. Most of all I drew from their amazing energy. I also drew a huge boost from my fellow athletes, my Polo Tri Teammates, locked-in in their own respective battles for age-groups, friends from the Cebu and Visayas contingent, and even athletes I don’t even know.
“I hit the final turn-around 15k mark at 1:10mins, I saw that I had about 2 mins on Noel who was still hanging on to 2nd, but Ferdie and Peter were not far behind and Arland struggling. I exchanged hand slaps with Peter and Arland but it meant completely different things. Arland’s slap was from me to him, I knew the guy lives for the sport, he’s extremely disappointed it’s not coming together, and I was encouraging him to soldier on in spite of everything. Peter’s hand slap was firm and his stride was smooth, I knew he was coming up, but he wanted to appear like he was already conceding therefore encouraging me to take it easy (I didn’t know at this point that Peter, my old training partner, is enjoying the form of his life, and has just finished 2nd overall with a time of 4:17 at the Desaru 70.3 distance race two weeks ago. That’s the Pinoy record at this distance faster than Arland’s 4:19 in Eagleman when he in turn, qualified for the World’s last year! Somehow, he and his team have managed to keep it under the radar at least for me.) Still, I had a good lead of at least 4mins with 5k to go, and my Timex said 4:10 so for my own sake I ditched any illusions of a time target of a still doable 4:35 at this point and instead just planned to run the last 5k at 30mins for a 4:40 overall time which I thought would be good enough to still win. Any faster, and everything can just lock up and it’s still very possible that I won’t even finish, but oh, now I wanted to win! Realization that instead of just leading, I was racing for a probable win made the last 5k one of the most tension-filled 28 mins of my life. I gingerly ran down all the downhills which were oh so painful and swung my arms to make a good tempo and lifted my aching knees up on the uphills. On the flats, I pushed as hard as I thought I could that will not trigger a complete lock up. I kept praying, thinking about my family at the finish and all sacrifices with our time and resources we’ve all had to make in order for me to even be in there in Camsur at that very moment, and now that I’m in a position to win -I wanted to win so badly for them and for myself.
“I kept busy encouraging my teammates on the course, drawing strength from the amazing crowds and school children waving flags, and from the awesome volunteers at the aid stations. I passed my cousin Redg in my old kit and my loaned shades and we exchange words of encouragement as he was forced to walk once again. I passed my sister Joyette and she said, “Go kuya!” just like hundreds of times before, but this time she’s not in the sidelines but in the middle of her own performance of a lifetime. (Fantastic job Yet for 5th overall, just 2mins behind Manda and beating Rizzo for the first time!)
“In the sea of people running in that inferno, nothing in the outside would indicate I’m any different from any of the athletes that I’m passing or that are passing me but are a lap down, except that I have 2 bands on my wrists instead of just one. I didn’t have an escort (most races the leader of the race has a bike escort), I don’t even think Macca or Rezzo had one all the time. And yes, a lot of age groupers can claim that they passed me on the run. (although they were a lap down)
“Entering the lake with 2.5k to go, I looked over to the last aid station and didn’t see any one come up, and I was relieved. “They may be chasing but I’ve done enough,” I thought to myself. At the 20k mark I saw that I ran 52mins in my 2nd 10k and 1:39, perfect I told myself, no complete meltdown in the heat. A quick glance behind my shoulder I didn’t see anyone coming up, or I thought whoever was there must be age-groupers still running strong in their first laps. At this point, I had grown accustomed to a lot of them passing me. With 800m to go, I told myself I’m going to enjoy this short lap around the small lake. I was almost walking when with 500m to go I had the wisdom to simply look over my shoulder and double-check. What I saw frightened the hell out of me: Peter Gonzales about 50 meters behind, in full stride, closing in fast, really fast. I summoned all my energy to awaken my legs and open up my stride again careful not to sprint too soon and risk locking up again, but rather accelerate all the way to the finish. Slowly at first, then deliberately, but with a sense of urgency, I found my full stride, it was the most pain I’ve ever experienced in a race, this controlled sprinting on cramped legs. I dared not look back anymore coz he was so close I could hear him already. I tried to pick it up even more to yet another gear. Like collapse at the finish line kinda pace, all out this time with 200m to go. I can no longer hear him, maybe he gave up, maybe my heart’s just beating too fast, I don’t know, I dared not look. I hit the tape, it’s just a huge emotional moment! I wait for Peter and congratulate him on a great race, Ferdie comes up soon after and we’re all separated by only a minute. Amazingly close for a 70.3 distance!
“I was within 3 mins of my target time, of 4:35, which was amazing given I didn’t anticipate such difficult conditions. Actually, I was pretty spot on with my text to you Friday, right? I said top 10 overall and top 3 pinoy was within reason, just didn’t figure I could beat Arland and actually win!”