As mentioned, this weekend marked the 26th annual Tagaman triathlon race. This is the first of the two events that mark the Saipan Sportsfest partially organized by the Marianas Visitors Authority.
It was my second time doing Tagaman — the first time being when I was roped into running it after a fun time at Xterra when the races were flip flopped (xterra occurred before Tagaman). The first time I was the runner on my team and would never have dreamed of doing the ocean swim part of it. Looking back at that post, I was in pretty good running shape — which I’m not quite now! The distances were also adjusted since then (I ran a 15k at that time) to fit the international definition of an Olympic distance triathlon. This time around, I had a team and was going to be swimming rather than running! And also, I got to be around for the whole event.
I was headed over to the starting point (PIC resort) at 5 AM so that we would have time to register and settle in. There wasn’t much for me to do since we were on a team, but those that are doing the whole thing need to setup their transition areas. You wouldn’t know about these unless you do triathlons — there are two transitions known as T1 and T2. At T1, you setup a place to kind of get dry and change from your swim gear to your bike gear (mostly people wear a tri suit and just are adding footwear and helmet and some type of water contraption). In addition, you hang your bike on a designated place on the rack. The other triathletes also dropped off bags marked with their number for their T2. At T2, they transition from bike to running so most people change their shoes, put on their running number (usually using some clip on belt instead of sitting there and pinning it to them) and grab more hydration. This bag gets dropped off at the start of the race and brought to the T2 point so that they have it available at that time.
Sorry for the blurry pictures, it was dark and I wasn’t focusing my iphone. Fortunately there are lots of people around taking pictures so I borrowed a few. In addition, once the race started I was basically camera-less.
From there, we made our way down to the beach for the ocean swim. I had already put my numbers on my arms, taken pictures with my team, and got my swim cap and goggles on. I also went in for a dip into the water for a very short ~25 meter warm up. It was also a way to get a feel for what the water was like. I swam at this same beach for the Meek and Mighty swim a few weeks ago and the water was just as calm on the day of Tagaman which I knew would make for a nice swim. We waited on the beach while they shouted out last minute instructions on the course and waited for the faintest rays of sun to come out.
I love that some people captured these images because they capture the beauty of swimming at sunrise. I can’t say it’s the most calm swim because 1) I knew this was the only part of the race I was officially doing so I wanted to push myself for speed and 2) assuming I wasn’t falling into last place, there would be lots of swimmers around me so I would have to keep my eye on the buoys that I was supposed to be aiming for while not running into (or rather, swimming into or getting hit/kicked) by another swimmer.
It’s actually not so regimented as you would think. Basically, we all crowd towards the start line and at the blow of the horn, we go! If you’re not the best swimmer or not super experienced at starting with a bunch of people, it’s best to try to stay towards the outside of the group.
The light was lovely and as I swam back to the finish line at the end of course, the sun was peaking over the trees lining the beach. As you can see, while we start in a clump in the beginning we spread out pretty quickly. From there, you run out of the water to the transition area which is actually not super close.
I just had to tag my biker by touching her hand (and I don’t mind running) so I basically sprinted out of the water towards her without stopping to take a breath. (Well, I did peel off my swim cap and goggles) Most other people use the time to start taking off any extra layers of clothes they need and — they run thru the showers that are setup. Basically, there was an area with a waterfall of water so you could run thru it (or just stand under it) and get some of the saltwater rinsed off. I was pretty tired after my swim and sprint so could not really imagine what it would be like to think — I have to bike 40 km and then run 10 km after this!
With a quick tap of my hand my biker was off! I got to watch a few of my friends do their transition at T1 and get on their bikes as well. From there, my runner (who had been with me on the beach and taking pictures/watching) and I walked to the street in front of PIC resort. The bikers made a right when they exited to go South towards the airport and then looped back North. I knew I would catch my biker by the time I walked out front to cheer for her. By the time I got out front I realized I had already missed some of the professionals in the short time it took to walk out from the transition area to the main road — they had that much of a lead already.
And.. here we are cheering for our teammate flying by!
The bike portion then leads riders north from PIC resort up to Marianas resort in the the Marpi area of the island where they turn around and head south again to American Memorial Park near the center of the island. We decided not to drive up to the Marianas resort since I wanted some time to rinse off and change clothes, and we wanted to cheer on our biker. We figured we could get there by car before they arrived but it was close! These bikers are riding at more than 30 miles per hour sometime and by car, we had to do some maneuvering in the traffic since parts of the road was blocked off. We quickly parked behind the fire station in Garapan across the street from the entrance to the park and jogged over to that intersection. There, we cheered for the bikers as they passed and saw our biker looking good as well!
Knowing we had a little bit of time since she was headed up north still, I rinsed off at Hyatt and I borrowed their bathroom for a quick change. We then waited at the T2 transition point in American Memorial Park. This would serve also as the finish line of the race so there was plenty of hubbub as the announcers would announce bikers coming in and we would see people transition to their run. Later on in the race, we would see some runners finishing the race while some of the longer distance bikers were just coming in.
I don’t have any pictures of this section really because I ended up going out on the trail so I left my phone with my things. This probably couldn’t happen in a truly official race but things are a little bit more ‘island style’ here and it’s not like we are professionals. I saw some of my friends come in while we were waiting for my biker to meet up with my swimmer. I knew in advance I wanted to run some part of the course. I ended up running alongside a friend to the first aid station which was fun (although it was already starting to get hot because the sun was beating down). From there, I waited for my runner to come so I could run alongside her and help her keep her pace. I wasn’t sure how long it would take actually so I was worried that I would be waiting there for awhile under the sun and was reconsidering the place I was standing. But, it was not long at all and soon I was off with my team’s runner. I ran with her until about the second aid station which ended up being about 2.5 km from the starting point and then let her run on her own. (I was not prepared to run the full 10 km with her!!) I then waited for her while she got to the turn around point on Middle Road and ran back towards me.
For me, this time was fun because I got to see some of the other teams that were behind us run by and cheer for them as well as see some of the teams and triathletes that were ahead of our team running back. While there are aid stations scattered along the way, one of the things that is different about running a race here in Saipan is there are basically no spectators — a few at the major points but very few otherwise. I remember how in my very first half marathon (in Philadelphia), I basically got through it on sheer willpower because of the many people lining the streets screaming encouragement at you — even if you are a stranger! This time, I gave out a lot of high fives as people slowly slogged ahead in their run under the sun. (In addition, you could see some of the pros who were doing double our distance whizzing by on their bikes)
My runner came back to where I was and I started running with her again. Pacing her this time I knew would be crucial since she was much more tired than I (while I had been hiding in the shade of a palm tree and giving out high fives). I tried to keep a few steps ahead of her to give her something mentally to focus on. I ran those last 2.5 km (to make my total 5 km) in with her and I was definitely feeling the heat and tiredness so I knew she was way more than me (not to mention the people who were running 13.1 miles as part of the half Ironman distance who were just starting the run when we finished!).
Our biker met us at the finish line and we happily took some pictures and sponged down with ice water. We got our times printed out (later slightly edited with the official results posted here) – 1.5 km swim 32:30, 40 km bike in 1:31:44, and 10 km run in 1:00:40. We were one of only two all-female teams and ended up in first place. As you know, it’s not hard to place in Saipan as sometimes you can be the only person in your age/sex division but — it’s still fun to get a prize.
We waited to watch some of the other finishers come in and also had the chance to see the men’s half Ironman distance winner come in — professional athlete Ben Allen.
In the evening, there was the awards reception back at PIC resort. It was fun to watch the sun set and think about how just that morning we were all swimming like crazy fishes in that same water!
The reception was nice with live music and buffet style food. We all were able to relax (well, pretty much.. some were already looking forward to the XTERRA race coming up on Saturday) and enjoy the award presentations. It doesn’t hurt that basically everyone gets an award!
This is our gold medal for the winners of the women’s relay team! It was nice to have the medal but I think the three of us were just really happy with how we did and how much fun we had doing it. We had named our team “We TRI to have fun” since we were just in it for the fun and getting to the finish line. This was the cherry on top for sure.
There were monetary prizes for the first 5 places of the half Ironman distance (a grueling 70.3 km total!) and everyone was happy with their wins. All of the pros that are here for the Tagaman are also here for XTERRA later this week so I will get to see them all again soon.
More to come — in the meantime, thanks for allowing me to share this experience with you and… yes, I do also work as a doctor here still!