My plane is circling over Table Mountain and I am about to land to meet my family for a short break. My mind goes back to the last few days. What a great weekend it has been! Time has flown by. I won’t easily forget my time on the African shores.
My trip starts on Friday with a hair-raising landing in Port Elizabeth – I knew it is called “the Windy City” for a reason so I fully expect it, but it is no fun nonetheless. As soon as I get to the hotel room and look at the race schedule, I immediately realise that I am going to be pressed for time as Saturday is going to be a quite busy day – indeed most other athletes have already arrived, witness the large number of bikes already parked in the lobby with the race numbers on. Sadly I have holidays with kids planned for after the race so literally I could not have taken any more time off work. Hence in keeping with my training regime (think Saturday 5am sessions to avoid clashing with ballet) here I am assembling my bike in my room at 10pm…
The next morning I drive to the expo – the hotel was not quite so “walking distance from the start line” as advertised. I quickly conclude that renting a car has been the right decision as in the end I had to travel from hotel to start line multiple times – never underestimate logistics as they can really add stress to the whole process. Registration done, light massage at 10am out of the way, I rush back to the hotel to pack my transition and street wear bags and add number stickers to bike and helmet, driving then back again to the expo for the race briefing at 1pm and bike racking at 2pm. Interestingly they tell me I can’t bring my bike to the race briefing venue, however as I have no intention to drive back again to the hotel yet one more time I simply take it in anyways – no questions asked, phew. That said this also means the only time to test my bike is literally 5 minutes before racking while carrying my transition bags – so I pray that I have tightened all the bolts properly while half asleep at 10pm the night before. From this point onwards the job is done, I simply go back to the hotel, have an early dinner and straight to bed – amazingly I fall asleep at 830pm. People say you typically don’t sleep the night before an IRONMAN but I think the relief for having made it to the start line is such that I actually sleep very well.
Race morning, here we came! As the alarm goes off at 345am, I start implementing my plan – straight to breakfast, back to the room to wear my race kit, then drive again to the start line – I get in transition at 515am. Here the first surprise: it is pitch black! Ironically the only guy of the lot who has mostly trained in the dark forgot his head torch. Anyways, somehow I manage to place my nutrition on the bike and in my transition bags in the dark, queue for the portaloos, and make my way towards the swim start. The following minutes are probably the most memorable images from the race – and of my life: 2,000 athletes standing on the beach, the sun dawning over the crystalline waters of the Indian ocean, traditional African dancers performing in front of us, the South African national anthem, and two helicopters flying low over the water in a scene that, for bizarre reasons, reminds of the movie “Apocalype Now” (subliminally, I must be fearing bloodshed at this point). Anyways, off goes the starting gun for the pros, and shortly thereafter the rolling start for the age groupers and finally, my turn. As I start swimming, I immediately discover one MAJOR issue. I have sea swimming experience, I have perfected my sighting technique over the last few months, I have planned to breath to the left on my way out from the pier and right on the way back to neutralize the waves, but the problem is that every time I lift my head all I can see is the next wave – they are HUGE! “Here goes my Kona slot!” I think. Seriously speaking, I basically resign to sighting every 2-4 strokes and knowing that I will be able to spot the next buoy only if I happen to sight while on the crest of a wave, so rarely. A couple of times when I basically don’t see any buoy for a very long time, I shift to breaststroke temporarily – I thought it more efficient to lose a bit of speed than to get lost.
Here comes the shore, I quickly look at my watch and it is indicating 1h18, better than I expected given the sea conditions, good way to start the race with lots of confidence. On the bike, I try as recommended to start slowly, holding no more than 200W and keeping my heart rate at around 150, but it is very difficult! I am clearly going too fast but I am unable to slow down, part of it is the sheer excitement of finally being on land, part of it is the being overtaken by many people going twice my speed. I battle with it, then after half an hour I manage to settle into a comfortable pace and resign to the feeling that I am going “too slow”. I just keep repeating to myself that I am less than 2 hours into a 12-hour race, so feeling like I am not racing and very comfortable is actually good – it won’t last, for sure! The bike leg goes through quite smoothly, unlike the English country roads I am used to, this is one long 45KM coastal road with few turns; the scenery is stunning, we are graced with the view (and sound!) of an F16 flying low right past us, and I catch up with my friend Enrique so we get to chat for a while which breaks the monotony. I know they say “the real race starts 150km into the bike leg” so I mentally prepare myself for the long straight stretch of 5km road with no vegetation, into strong headwinds and under the sun which I will have to face towards the end of the bike leg: “here is my Queen K Highway” I say to myself. The last notable event on the bike (sorry for the graphic details) is that I decide to stop at a portaloo and realize that my urine color is very dark – I know I wasted a few minutes but that is probably the best decision of the day, the temperature has meanwhile risen to almost 30 degrees so even if I am sticking to my drinking plan, it is a sign it is clearly not enough.
Off comes the final straight of the bike leg with the crowds, I feel a huge sense of relief that I have suffered no mechanicals or punctures and finish the bike leg on a high note, as I know running will be my home turf. As I settle into the run, it feels very easy: here I am running well below 5 minutes/km and feeling good. “This is my thing, the job is done now!” I think. How wrong am I! Within the first couple of miles I realize that I simply feel very good about standing upright again, rather than feeling fresh; I also dawns on me that the temperature is now likely over 30 degrees and I still have 35km to go! The course if flat bar two light climbs at each end of the 4 laps; the second one actually feels quite steep and most people walk it, I can’t imagine doing it 3 more times! “Here’s my Palani Hill!” I think. Somehow it helps me to imagine that I am temporarily Dave Scott rather than a middle aged dad with a taste for fine whiskey on his first IRONMAN. On the run I also take a glimpse of World Champion Daniela Ryf running the opposite direction – gosh she is hot, much more than in print! The sight gives me one more reason to take my mind off my plight, and I spend the next 10 minutes planning what to say when she overtakes me – I am undecided between “Go Daniela” and “Have you got plans for dinner tonight?” In the end I don’t have to make a decision as she takes a right turn towards the finish line and she fails to overtake me – sorry Daniela, dinner next time.
In the last few KMs I go all in on coke and Redbull, this lifts me up completely even though I have to walk through each aid station to sponge my head as it is now unbearably hot. I realize that it is so hot that by now half of the athletes are walking – I learnt later that even some of the pros had to walk part of the marathon. Lucky winner Ben Hoffman was so fast (slightly less than 8 hours) that he really did not have to fight the heat for very long – plus having spent the last 10 days here to acclimatize must have helped I guess…
The last couple of miles on the run are amazing, I stop to wash my face, comb my hair, remove my hat for the pictures, and somehow all my energies come back – I am now running 7 minute/mile and am on course for a 3’50 marathon! As I turn to the red carpet I realize I have done well as I am still in the part of the field where people arrive trickling down rather than in droves. I am unable to slow on the red carpet and I run the last few meters jumping, punching the air, and making an “M” and “C” sign with my arms, my own version of the “Mobot” for my kids – Matteo and Chiara. The feeling of elation crossing the finish line is immense, all the Saturday 5am sessions come back, the punctures, being hit by a van in the Chilterns, all the money spent on my shining Canyon and the long journey to South Africa – all of a sudden I am crying like a baby, which I did not expect. Some volunteers come to check on me, but I reassure them that I am fine, just emotional. I am in the top 30% of m age group, which I feel is not bad for a first timer. Interestingly, I try to eat but unlike for other races this time I am not able to eat anything for at least 2 hours afterwards. Job done, time to check out my bike and go back to my hotel and enjoy the hundreds of emails, Whatsapps and Facebook messages. You know you have accomplished something special when your phone is exploding! What a memorable day! Ah yes then there is the small detail of having to pack my bike again as I am flying early the next day – once more at 10pm and after having done an IRONMAN, not sure how many bolts I will find when I am back in London…
Finally, before I sign off let me address the two most likely questions from other HTC Club members. Would I recommend Ironman South Africa? Will I do another IRONMAN?
On the first, definitely yes. My only other IM experience was IM 70.3 Staffordshire, but what a change! This place is breathtakingly beautiful, the course is picture perfect, the event is well organized, and above all locals make you feel like the real star of the weekend – I could not walk more than 5 meters without somebody offering to carry my bags, my bike, stopping traffic to help me cross – I felt like a rock star for 48 hours, for once in my life! Staffordshire, it ain’t. The only recommendation, if anybody plans to come here in the future, is to come here early to get acclimatized: it is very hot and also there are many fun events around the race (the Friday night pasta dinner, the Monday night after party) which I missed.
On doing another IRONMAN: I guess the having to arrive at the last minute and leave early, coupled with the sight of hundreds of perfect bodies, IM tattoos and veins on display on perfectly chiseled, shaven legs (guys and girls) drove home the following point: there are lots of people that live for this. IRONMAN is their life, they dedicate their whole spare time to it, and measure their success by their ability to attain a Kona slot. Obviously, I am just a middle aged dad with a taste for fine whiskey and a tendency to gain weight easily, so I suppose I first need to come to terms with the fact that I will remain a “middle of the pack athlete” for now, before I enter again another IRONMAN. I probably have more chances to be really competitive at the 70.3 level given my time constraints and family commitments. But if and when I do another Ironman, I’ll certainly come back to South Africa!