AFTER witnessing the Langkawi Ironman on three previous occasions as a spectator, nurse Carmen Leong sprung a surprise beyond her wildest dream in her debut at this season's race that concluded on Feb 23.
The 39-year-old emerged as the top Malaysian women finisher to clinch the third spot in the women's 35-39 years category with a time of 12'39:09 in the gruelling 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42.2km run course.
For Leong, the icing on the cake was securing her berth to compete against more illustrious triathletes at the Ford Ironman World Championships scheduled in Kona, Hawaii on October 11.
Leong said her achievement was a dream come true.
“I am delighted that I have done well in such a short period as Langkawi was my second Ironman race. I heard about the prominent event in Hawaii from my training buddies. Getting a chance to feature in a high profiled race is such a rare privilege. I paid RM1,800 when I signed up to confirm my entry,” she added.
Going into the race at Langkawi, the rookie did not set any specific target. Leong revealed she was on cloud nine when she surpassed her closest Malaysian rival, Wendy Wong, mid-way through the final discipline.
“I was so happy when I overtook her because I knew that I have grabbed the top Malaysian women's spot,” said Leong, who holds a personal best of 4'04 in the marathon.
Despite coming out of the water with an eight-minute advantage against Wong, Wong proved to be a more accomplished cyclist.
Wong closed down and stretched her lead when she was almost 25 minutes faster than Leong on the saddle.
“Besides the scorching weather, I found it tough going on the bicycle. It was challenging to cope with the hilly terrain as well as the headwind. I felt the strain on my back after the first 60km on the bike. I reckon it was due to my bike's setting because I changed the handlebar prior to the race,” said Leong.
Fortunately, she felt fresh after the cycling to mount a comeback on the final running leg. It was also her maiden triumph over Malaysia's top ranked women triathlete Dr. Fiona Lim, who is considered a more established competitor.
“Honestly, I have been trailing her over the years. It was the first time I finished ahead of her ,” added Leong.
Although she registered a slower time compared to her first Ironman feat at the Ironman Western Australia Triathlon in Bussselton, Australia in December, her training partner Sam Pritchard said they anticipated it because of the demanding conditions in Langkawi.
In her first appearance tackling the full Ironman distance in Australia, she crossed the finish line in 12'30.
“It was not surprising that she came slower because Langkawi is regarded as one of the top three most difficult courses in the world. The two other venues are Kona (Hawaii) and Lanzrote (Spain),” added Pritchard, who is a retired Englishman residing here for the past eight years.
After the outing in Busselton, the duo only started training in late January for the event in Langkawi.
“I am confident that I can still improve on my performance especially in the swim and cycle. I have not reached my peak yet,” said Leong, adding that running has always been her forte.
She aims to reduce her personal best by another 15 minutes to 12'15.
At the moment, Leong will recuperate after her fruitful outing in Langkawi for the next three months.
During her recovery period, she will only engage in light workouts.
“Currently, we are sourcing funds for her to compete in Hawaii. It will cost about RM10,000 for her to realise her dream to race against the best in the world. We will make sure that she gets to the starting line. Serious training will only start in June. We will draw up a structured endurance-training programme for 15 weeks and she has to chalk up between 12 and 15 hours a week as a build up to the world meet,” said Pritchard, who has also submitted his entry into the lottery draw to secure a place for the race in Hawaii.