Tough Battles, Tougher Warrior
Professional triathlete Monica Torres dreams of setting foot on the pro podium of Ironman 70.3 and Challenge-half races. In this raw and honest interview, she tells us the road isn’t easy, but her grit and determination will get her there.
Let’s start this story with a little trivia. Monica Torres, who’s raced as a professional triathlete since 2009, first learned about triathlon through her prom date, broadcast journalist Atom Araullo, who, in his younger years, used to be a junior triathlete.
But while he tread another career path, Monica’s love for multisport overshadowed her teen infatuation.
Torres, now 32, never thought that one day, she would become a professional triathlete and the only Filipina racing in the pro category for non-drafting triathlons around the world. Since the Ironman 70.3—a 1.9-km swim, 90-km bike, and a 21-km run—started in the Philippines in 2009, she has held the record for being the fastest Filipina of this course. At the Cobra Ironman 70.3 in Cebu in August 2015, she placed 5th among the pro women with a time of 4:39:37. At the Century Tuna 70.3 in Subic Bay last March 6, she placed 5th overall among the women and 1st for Filipina Elite at 4:39:45.
“As the races get bigger and and tougher, my goals do the same. I want to go where no Philippine triathlete has been before—on the pro podium of Ironman 70.3 and Challenge half-races.”
She’s putting in the hours and the mileage. And how. In the runup to Ironman Vietnam 70.3 in May, Torres joined a four-week training camp in Phuket, Thailand the month before with Z-Coaching led by Jurgen Zack. The squad consisted of athletes from a wide variety of backgrounds and skill levels—from athletes training for their first Olympic distance race to Kona-qualifying age groupers and professionals such as international pro female Dimity Lee-Duke and Thailand’s top male triathlete, Jaray Jearanai. Torres was all set and gunning for a personal best in the 70.3 distance in mild tropical temperatures on a flat and fast course on May 8, 2016 in Da Nang, venue of the 2nd VNG Ironman 70.3 Vietnam.
But it was not to be. She recalls that frustrating moment:
“Right from the start of the swim, I felt a little bit nauseated and low on energy…I forced myself to concentrate and move on from my shit swim, and motivated myself by aiming for a good bike split. But during the bike leg, by kilometer 75, the nausea increased and I just felt extraordinarily tired. I alternated between giving up and giving myself a mental slap about 10 times already at that point, before I finally stopped at an aid station around the 80-km mark, got off my bike and sat down.
“The disappointment, frustration, and anger that I felt, combined with the confusion of not knowing what was happening to my body, was so overwhelming that I started crying. I was troubled by the fact that even after a few minutes of sitting down, I wasn’t feeling better. The volunteers were telling me to hydrate and eat, but I was already full on sobbing—the ugly-cry, gasping-for-breaths kind. And before I knew it, I was really short on breath, and I started feeling numbness on my face, chest, abdomen, arms and hands.” Torres withdrew from the race.
“I don’t make excuses for bad days and I hate to DNF,”
says Torres, referring to the acronym triathletes dread, which stands for “Did Not Finish.” “The last time I DNF’ed a triathlon was at the IM 70.3 Gurye in Korea, but that was due to an irreparable broken saddle clamp,” she says.
Torres was taken into emergency care. Her symptoms had gone even before the ambulance started moving, but the doctors in Vietnam took no chances. “I suspected that I had some weird allergy or nutrition problems. I didn’t expect [the doctors] to say that they suspected a possible heart attack. But back home, after clearing all my tests—2D Echo, CT Angio, treadmill stress test—and seeing my cardiac enzymes back to normal, my cardiologist concluded it was probably a caffeine overdose that caused the symptoms that eventually led to a panic attack.”
Torres found the next few weeks post-race, agonizing.
“I was angry, because my hard work in Phuket amounted to shit. Disappointed, because not only did I DNF Vietnam, but I would miss two other races I was looking forward to: Thailand Tri-League in Pattaya and Regent 5150 in Subic. Missing races also means losing potential income. I was stressed about not producing enough good results for sponsors in the coming weeks,” she says.
Doctors allowed her to jump right back into training after a brief hospital stay but advised her to dial down the intensity of her sessions. It was frustrating for this perennial top finisher to have to start from what felt like square one. “Right in that first week of training, I was so upset because I felt really weak and slow. I don’t have a heart condition. I only took one week off training and another week really easy, so why was I feeling so unfit? A couple of times after swim sessions, I actually burst into tears at the Brent school parking lot because it just felt like I had taken a million steps backward.
“I was scared because for the first time, I realized what I was feeling was doubt.”
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
In June, a month after the Vietnam incident, Torres is back in Subic, known for its hot, humid weather and a relatively challenging hilly bike course. She’s due for another stress test and medical checkup, so she’s reining in her training to aid in full recovery. There are her month-long training camps with coach Zack in Phuket twice a year. But when she’s home, Torres joins fellow triathlete and swim coach LC Langit for swim training, and other Subic-based members of the national team like Rambo Chicano, for rides and runs. A typical training day for Monica Torres includes two long workouts, one in the morning, another in the afternoon that can be as short as a 40-minute swim/run workout or as long as a five-hour ride.
She’s got the training groove back again, and regained the emotional and mental focus that deserted her in Da Nang. Torres feels she’s on track to her goal for qualifying on the pro level in 2017.
“I’m never going to be a Melissa Hauschildt or Gwen Jorgensen,” referring to Hauschildt, an Australian triathlete who won the 2011 and 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championships and Jorgensen, an American pro who was the 2014 and 2015 ITU (International Triathlon Union) World Champion.
“Right now I’m just taking it one step at a time. I hope to qualify for Ironman 70.3 World Championships as a professional because we have had athletes in the 70.3 World Championships as age groupers, but none yet as professional,” says Torres.
Torres is aiming to qualify professionally for the IM 70.3 World Championships in 2017. It’s a year away, but accumulating the points to qualify has begun in earnest. “I’m just pushing myself to get faster times and qualify [on a professional level] for the 70.3 World Championships,” she says. Professional triathletes qualifying for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships need to compete in a series of sanctioned races during the qualifying period. Their top five highest scoring races are counted and it’s the top 35 females in the pro roster that are admitted into the championship. Right now, Torres is ranked number 93 in the Ironman 70.3 global rankings, four notches below the UK’s Leanda Cave, who won the Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world championships in the same year (2012); and three spots below Nicola Spirig of Switzerland, the 2012 Olympic Games women’s triathlon champion.
RAISING STANDARDS IN PHILIPPINE TRIATHLON
As triathlon continues to grow in popularity in the Philippines, with the country proving its dominance in Southeast Asia, Torres hopes to help play a role in developing a long-term and sustainable program to discover and develop elite athletes for a bigger stage beyond the region.
And one issue she feels strongly about is doing away with the “Filipino Elite” category in Philippine triathlons. “Everywhere else except in the Philippines, there really are just two categories: ‘elite’ and ‘age-group,’” Torres points out. Triathlon participation is comprised of two statuses: Elite and Age-Group. The Elite category is raced in by professional triathletes who compete in an international level. Age-Group is the category that non-professional or amateur triathletes race in. In this category, a triathlete competes against other competitors in the same age range (a five-year range) and sex.
In the Philippines, the “Filipino elite” category was created as a category below the elite level and just above the age-group category in acknowledgment of exceptional Filipino triathletes surpassing age-group levels who are yet unable to compete on the same level as international professional triathletes. “I really hope that the Filipino Elite category will be taken out because there’s no need for it. I think it hinders the development of our athletes,” Torres says.
She acknowledges that she has benefited from the Filipino Elite category. Torres placed first in this category for the women at the Century Tuna Ironman 70.3 Subic Bay in 2015 and 2016. But she’s raced that category out of sheer survival in the competitive triathlon scene. “Getting the top Filipino Elite spot for IM 70.3 Philippines events is often more rewarding financially, and in terms of media exposure and recognition, which are valuable to sponsors,” she says.
But her dilemma remains: “If I race as Filipino Elite, and not Elite (along with the international professionals), how do I get the points that I need to qualify for the world championships? What is more important to me? Do I need points or do I need prize money and media recognition?”
While acknowledging the generosity of sponsors and organizers in awarding prize money to the Filipino-elite category winners, Torres believes that it’s high time to discard the category. “Let’s not baby ourselves. We can compete with professional international athletes.” If sponsors so wished, she suggests that an added bonus be awarded to the top male or female triathlete from the Philippines who podiums in the Elite category, or to the fastest Filipino and Filipina regardless of category.
Last June 5, at the Regent 5150, Torres was out on the hot and humid Subic course as a spectator, cheering on the participants. “Even though it sucked not to race in the Regent 5150, my favorite standard distance race in the Philippines, and with a swim right outside my door, I camped out on the bike course and cheered on the racers,” says Torres.
“It was inspiring to see the pros in their element, and fun to watch my friends going for their own personal goals. But it was most inspiring to see all the newbies that day. I couldn’t help but feel their passion and excitement for the sport, and I was reminded that just a few years back, that was me in their place.
“I started just like everyone else, an adult age grouper not really knowing how to swim, bike, or run. I just kept on doing it,” Torres adds.
Her top tip for beginner triathletes is to “take it easy.” “‘Longer’ does not necessarily mean ‘better.’ When you finish a sprint distance, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should do a longer race the next time. You may be harming yourself,” says Torres. If a newbie wishes to sustain his or her participation in triathlon, constant self-evaluation is necessary. “You need to assess how it went, perhaps join another sprint and get a better time. Focus on improving your times before jumping on to the next big thing,” she adds.
It’s definitely sound advice that Torres is taking. We’re rooting for her to bring pride to the country and achieve her goal of being the first Filipino professional triathlete to podium in an Ironman 70.3 or Challenge-half race someday. We hope that day arrives sooner.
YOU CAN TRI WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS
Monica’s tips to recovering from a setback
Be humble enough to ask for help.
“As a pro athlete, you have to be really tough. You have to learn to deal with pain and failure. But sometimes you have to know when to say ‘I’m tired, I need help.’”
Call on family.
“Living in Subic, I’m away from my family and most of my close friends. It was a big relief to have my parents come and take care of me in hospital. I have come to realize that I am the confident person that I am today, because of the love and unconditional support they have always given me.”
Rope in your support crew.
“When it gets really tough, I just have to remind myself that I have a great support system behind me. And it is through my wonderful partner, Artur, and my really good friends, Junie and Kim (Mangrobang), who are all triathletes themselves, that I was able to keep going until I got back into my normal routine. They put up with all my drama. They encouraged me. And the most important part: They made me laugh—mainly by making fun of me—but that’s what real friends do.”
WHAT MONICA CAN’T RACE WITHOUT
Swim TYR Nest Pro Goggles
“I’ve been using TYR Nest Pro goggles for training and racing for the past four years. They fit well, and are comfortable on the face. It’s also perfect for open water with its wide peripheral range for good sighting. It comes in a variety of colors to match your kit, and also different types of lens—smoke, clear, mirrored—to suit your needs for various training/racing conditions.
Bike 2016 Specialized S-Works Shiv Tri
“I ride the gorgeous 2016 Specialized S-Works Shiv Tri in Gloss Satin Rocket Red. In non-drafting triathlons, it’s very important to stay aero and be efficient. The S-Works Shiv Tri frameset and integrated cockpit is designed to be aero and is optimized for crosswinds. It also has an integrated hydration bladder and built-in storage for food and tools. I feel very comfortable on turns and descents, which is not what you would normally expect from a tri-specific bike. Overall, it’s easy to work on and is very versatile, so you can customize it and set it up to your own personal preference. Plus, it looks amazing in glittery, fiery, red orange.
Run Nike Lunar Tempo 2
“The Nike Lunar Tempo 2 is my favorite training shoe. It’s as light as a racing flat, but has super soft cushioning for longer runs and tempo runs. It’s good for track and speed work as well, because of its responsive ride and neutral ride. It’s well-ventilated, which is perfect for running in Philippine weather, and it comes in a variety of cool and bright colors. Nike Lunar Tempo 2 is a great all-around training shoe.”