The odds were stacked against Nihal Ahamad Baig, when he started out on the running leg of the Ironman 70.3 Goa on 13 November. He was in seventh position at this point, trailing the leader, Pablo Erat of Switzerland, by about 19 minutes. The defending champion from the 2019 edition, Bishworjit Saikhom, too, was a good five minutes ahead of him.
“At that point, I realised that 19 minutes may be too much to cover. But I knew I could target Bishworjit, since I have always been a strong runner. I was sure of finishing in second spot,” Baig, 28, says. He battled on despite the hot, humid conditions in Panjim. Between 8-9km, he had done enough to go past Saikhom. And by the time he hit the 12.5km mark, he had put on a resilient effort to not only catch up with Erat, but also hold on to the lead until the finish line.
“It was a big push between 5km and 12 km, but I still didn’t expect to catch up with them so soon,” he says. It was the fifth time that Baig was participating in the Ironman 70.3 distance (1.9km swim, 90km bike ride, 21.1km run), and the first time he had taken top spot. In 2019, he had finished second behind Saikhom, separated by a little over five minutes. The swim in choppy waters off Miramar Beach had let him down and the 15-minute gap was difficult to bridge, despite recording faster times than Saikhom in the cycling and running legs. “I had a terrible swim on that day. But it was a good race on the whole for me and I was really happy with my performance,” he says.
A middle distance runner during his college days, Baig had always been more comfortable with running and cycling. Things were different this time around and he admits he was at ease in the water. It was a result of the work that he put in at the pool over the two months leading up to the race. But that too came under the most unusual circumstances.
One of Baig’s primary races this year was the Berlin Marathon in September. Through most of the year, he focussed on running, consistently logging a mileage of 120km each week, which peaked at about 160km closer to the race. He would mix it up with tempo sessions and speed workouts on a 400 metre track back home in Pune. The evenings were dedicated to strength workouts that targeted the core and glutes, along with cycling rides as part of cross training. Every session would end with yoga and foam rolling for recovery.
“Swimming was on and off, with almost no structure to it. I would enter the water every once in a while after a long run for just about a kilometre or so as part of recovery,” he says. But a few weeks before the race, Baig experienced burnout when it came to running. He was unable to focus during training and decided to put his Berlin Marathon plan on hold.
“It didn’t make sense to go there when I wasn’t feeling it. In fact, though I had signed up for the Ironman 70.3 Goa, I stopped running completely because I just wasn’t enjoying it,” Baig says. With no routine going for him, he decided to give swimming a shot. Over time, he realised he was enjoying his time in the pool and started swimming every day, logging a weekly mileage of about 15km. There was a new sense of comfort that he discovered in the water. Gradually, he got back to cycling, riding close to 200km each week. It was only two weeks before the race that he started running again, taking on about 50km in all on alternate days.
“The training specific to triathlons was only for about 15 days. But I was more aware of my body when in the water and felt really good,” he says.
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It was the same when Baig did a few practice swims in the sea before the race. The anxiety that he usually experienced in open waters was missing. He felt a lot calmer and confident of improving on his 2019 performance.
By the time race day arrived, Baig had a target of 35 minutes for the swim. Once he hit the water, he felt strong and surged ahead in search of the leading pack. He finished the leg in 32 minutes, a big improvement on the 45 minutes he had clocked in 2019. “I was trailing at that point, but I knew that if I could keep up on the biking leg, I would catch up during the run,” he says.
As he set off, Baig pushed hard. All his attention while on the bicycle was on the power meter. With the effort that he was putting in, he expected better numbers. But he felt good in the saddle and decided to sustain the momentum, rather than ride harder. “I was able to cross a lot of people after the bike section. But the leader, Pablo, was cruising and logged a split that was 15 minutes faster than me,” he says.
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As he set off on the run, Baig made one last dash to make the race his. The weather conditions were taxing and once he took the lead, he decided to slow down to prevent cramping. On the final third of the run section, he put in a conservative effort to take the win and record a personal best time of 4 hours 29 minutes, around seven minutes faster than second-placed Saikhom (4 hours 37 minutes).
“A sub 4 hour 30 minutes timing was a dream ever since I got into triathlons and it felt great to achieve it on a hot, challenging course. And I can say that my performance in the water is what got me the win,” he says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.
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