Exclusive Interview with Rupert Chen: How to race Ironman in sub-10 hours?

Rupert Chen Ironman triathlon

Like every other weekend warrior Triathlete, Rupert Chen keeps all his swim caps and medals on the wall at home and has four bicycles in the living room at home.

What makes this Malaysian engineer stand out among the crowd, is his determination to race the IRONMAN distance triathlon encompassing 3.8km of swimming, 180km of cycling and 42km of running below 10 hours, to beat the Malaysian record.

“I was racing Challenge Roth in Germany with an injured knee but I was willing to put everything down on the line to achieve my goal of sub-10 hours.”

“I also wanted to break the Malaysian record of 9hr 55min held by Muhd Razani Husain since 2002 but I missed it by 4 minutes, finishing at 9h 59min,” said Rupert.

What made you dabble in Triathlon?

Rupert: I was already running but wanted something more challenging and saw triathlon on television and thought it was interesting that people could do swimming, cycling and running in the same sport.

So I asked a friend in Triathlon, “How can I do an Ironman triathlon?” and he replied, “Why don’t you try a shorter distance first before the full Ironman distance?” and that was when I realised there were shorter distance triathlons!

Rupert came close to beating the Malaysian triathlon record at Challenge Roth, Germany. (ChallengeRoth)

Rupert came close to beating the Malaysian triathlon record at Challenge Roth, Germany. (ChallengeRoth)

I bought a steel bicycle, three weeks before the Kenyir Triathlon in 2009, which was my first Olympic Distance – 1.5km swim, 40km cycle, 10km run – triathlon. I didn’t even know how to use the pedal with the foot cage and shift levers.

I really love the sport, but the training can be insane and I train 7-8 hours a day at times.

Which do you enjoy most between swim, bike and run?

Rupert: Cycling, which is my strength and is also crucial as it determines my run. I’m not a good runner, but I am good on the bike so I feel fresh on the run. I stand a chance to beat good runners who are not so strong on the bike, and they come off the bike weaker.

If you are strong cyclist and if you hold back, you will have good legs on the run which will work to your advantage.

Are you a speed demon?

Rupert: Most people are surprised that I ride slowly in training, and even the girls can keep up. It’s only on Race Day that I’m a different guy from training. Triathlon Coach, Steve Lumley gave me a program which I follow closely, and each daily program has a purpose behind it.

When I was younger, I had a strong ego and wanted to prove that I was the fastest all the time. But now I’ve realised, it doesn’t matter how you do in training, your result only matters on Race Day.

Training in the zone will give you optimum results as oppose to pushing yourself hard all the time in training, because your body won’t be able to burn fat as fuel. In long distance racing, you will lose out on race day.

Rupert pushed his physical limits racing with an injured knee at Challenge Roth, Germany. (ChallengeRoth)

Rupert pushed his physical limits racing with an injured knee at Challenge Roth, Germany. (ChallengeRoth)

What do you have to do to break 10 hour mark?

Rupert: Train smarter. Lumley’s program is good as it gives you a variety in training and the tapering period is quite long at 3 weeks, which I think is very important for fresh legs at Ironman.

I do strength training in gym once a week, mixed with a bit of core workout in which has improved my running posture. I have also started swimming with Team TIME since December 2015 which gave me more intense swimming sessions.

All in all, this has improved my swim time by a big margin, my cycling and running has also improved by 22 minutes each since last year. Compared to my previous Ironman distance race last year, I trimmed my race time by 48 minutes.

I’ll have to shave off 4 more minutes to beat the Malaysian record, and I’d likely have to reduce time in transition.

How do you handle your nutritional needs during a race?

Rupert: I don’t follow a strict diet, but I’ll have sweet potatoes before the race, Carbo Pro which is complex carbohydrate supplement and salt tablets during the cycling leg where your stomach is more stable and can digest it. While on the run, I take simple sugar like Coca Cola or Gatorade. You will get stomach issues if you eat solids on the run.

At Challenge Roth, which was voted the best Iron-distance triathlon in the world for the last five years, they prepared lemons which provided me a shot to wake up on the race. They also distributed salty biscuits which provided some crunch and chicken soup which helps in giving you some nutrients, so it’s good to have a variety of food during the race. It’s so popular that registration sells out within a minute online!

Pondering on his next foray at the Ironman Malaysia in Nov.

Pondering on his next foray at the Ironman Malaysia in Nov.

You also impart knowledge by coaching others in Triathlon as well. Tell us about that.

Rupert: I also coach and write training programs for my triathlon students. I talk to them and tell them to just proceed with the next session if you miss training on a certain day. You don’t have to replace the session as you will tire yourself out. I will also explain the theory behind the session so that they can adjust it independently.

I’m currently coaching five students now, who are a mixed bunch of working adults from beginners to advanced and some who are podium material. Aimi Iwasaki who is a SUKMA medallist in Cycling – Gold in Team Time Trial, Silver in Individual Time Trial are one of my students.

It’s strange that aspiring triathletes are willing to spend tens of thousands on the bike, but are not willing to spend a little more on coaching. A coach can teach you proper techniques and training tips to improve 20-30 percent faster, as compared to spending thousands on upgrades on your bike for a marginal gain that you might not be able to sustain.

A quick fix is not a good solution, but if you gain the skills, you will improve your personal development and your race performance.

It takes a village to raise a child as it does to groom a triathlete. How does your family contribute to your triathlon life?

Rupert: My parents are really supportive even following my updates when I was racing at Roth, Germany. One brother supports me via sponsorship from his restaurant in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah while another is also a triathlete so he understands the sacrifices. My mum chips in by cooking healthy meals and supports my nutrition needs like cooking sweet potatoes for my training.

Rupert created the Bunanamo Triathlon club to foster social ties and camaraderie among Triathlon buddies.

Rupert created the Bunanamo Triathlon club to foster social ties and camaraderie among Triathlon buddies.

What bicycle are you riding, and what accessories always go with you in a race?

Rupert: I am currently riding a TimeTrial bicycle by Boardman, the Air TT9.8 sponsored by H2C, which runs on SRAM Force groupset. Professional Australian triathlete, Pete Jacobs won the 2012 Ironman Kona World Championships with this frame while the Brownlee brothers also won the 2012 Olympics with Boardman and propelled the name to fame.

I’m also glad to be sponsored by Garmin which provides the Edge 1000 as my bike computer with power meter Vector 2S. I usually train with the power meter, as a race strategy on power is more accurate instead of just using your heart rate. I’m was also using Garmin’s GPS running watch – Fenix 2 but have upgraded to one with multi-sport functions in the Forerunner 735XT.

Rupert Chen has been appointed as the Ironman Asia Ambassador representing Malaysia. (Ironman Malaysia)

Rupert Chen has been appointed as the Ironman Asia Ambassador representing Malaysia. (Ironman Malaysia)

It’s only befitting that Rupert was selected to represent Malaysia as the IRONMAN Asia Ambassador at the upcoming Ironman Malaysia race at Langkawi island, Kedah in November. He’s no stranger to long-distance races having raced twice in IRONMAN Malaysia and 4 Half-IRONMANs (70.3 mile) races, usually finishing in among the top three Malaysians.

Cheer him on as he might have another go at breaking the 9h 55mins record at Langkawi on November 12th at Ironman Malaysia.

Photos were taken using Casio Exilim FR100, excellent wide angle experience.

This article was first published on ToughAsia.com and photos were taken by myself for ToughAsia unless stated otherwise.

Yeow Mei Jyn

Little Jynx is Yeow Mei Jyn's alter persona whom loves travelling the world, cycling to explore new places and finding yummy eats in the smallest towns.

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