It’s difficult to describe my IronMan experience. I know I expected to get so much out of it, but two weeks later I can’t truthfully tell you what. I do know that it was a truly humbling experience, and I saw some extraordinary athletes showing their muscle on the course, and some ordinary people do some amazing things against all odds.
And I do know is that a part of me will forever be standing on that beach, whispering: “You will do this“.
As I got ready to race my first ever IronMan, I struggled with the Pterodactyls that were flying Hitchcock-Birds-style in my stomach. The closest experience I had to what lay ahead was running the Otter Trail Run 2010 and 2011. Those were roughly 6 hour 40km trail running affairs, and nowhere close to the distances I was now faced with, or the minimum of 12 hours that I could expect to be on the course (I did take some small comfort in having had survived the 26-plus hours I took to complete the poorly named Merrell Eden Duo 24 Hour Adventure race).
The build-up to this one weekend had been more intense than anything I have experienced before. I was fitter, stronger and healthier than I had ever been in my life. I had been injury-free for over a year, my legs having held up to high mileage and increased speed on tar, and the addition and adaptation to cycling. Barring an accident or a catastrophic mechanical failure on the bike, physically there was no reason for me not to complete this race.
Mentally, however, I found myself in an incredibly difficult head-space after some personal disappointments during the year that I have been battling to come to terms with. I was expecting a long conversation with myself on race day, or rather the continuation of a conversation that had started some time ago. But I also expected to be leaving a lot of stuff out there on the course; something had me convinced that this was the event that would see me leaving some demons strewn along the course, with me emerging less encumbered, stronger for the experience. This was the ritual I have been searching for. I knew that this IronMan, for me, would be raced entirely in my head.
Road-trip to PE
My planning for IronMan could have been better in many ways. I would have been more comfortable and relaxed had I taken an extra day off on either side for the journey to Port Elizabeth (I only took the Friday and the Monday off).
Needing to be in PE as early as possible on the Friday morning, I left for PE on the Thursday evening, overnighting in the Beachhouse Backpackers in Wilderness, the idea being to make it in time for the official swim session between 08h00 and 10h00 on Friday. I left Cape Town late and emotionally distraught. I arrived in Wilderness after midnight and went straight to bed, and missed eating a vital meal.
A number of people started Tweeting about the weather forecast the weekend before. I never hold much value in weather forecasts, and in any case, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to let bad weather keep them away on race day.
I arrived just before 09h00 on Friday morning, and headed straight down to beach to swim, bumping into Nice Girl and her friends. We had a very easy swim in beautiful conditions, and I got out of the water feeling relaxed and upbeat.
I had not eaten well the night before or on the trip, so after the swim, I went for a big breakfast at Blue Waters Café on the beachfront (actually I ate two breakfasts). The weather was idyllic, and we were even treated to a large school of dolphins out playing on the swim course. I checked into the Road Lodge, which made up for its lack of luxury by being directly across the road from the IronMan transition area, which was extremely convenient considering I was alone and had no-one to help me get organised and cart stuff around etc.
I walked around the expo, and bought a race belt, Rudy Project Rydons and Rudy Project Zuma helmet. I went for a cycle along the coastline to stretch my legs and gather my thoughts. In the evening it was race briefing, and I managed to meet up with Scotty & Bianca, Nice Girl, Caro and Kathy. Once briefing was finished, we headed over to Primi Piatti for a pasta dinner.
I was extremely nervous and restless, the only time I wasn’t was when I was out training — not ideal! On Saturday I eventually treated myself to a half hour neck and shoulder massage which finally relaxed and grounded me. I had gone for a short cycle in the morning, and in the late afternoon I went for a short jog along the beachfront.
From the massage I went to the bike check in. You are split up by race number and given time-slots to check your bike plus your bike and run bags into transition. I racked my bike and hung my bags up, and then walked through transition the way I would be racing on the day about 4 times! Scotty arrived and I chatted to him while he did his thing, and then Miranda arrived and I did the same. I also got some shots of the official IronMan bike pornographer, and drooled over all the amazing bikes.
A quick pasta dinner at Primi Piatti, then back to rest, and finally sleep.
It was dark when I woke up, but you could hear the wind and rain outside. I had Instant Oats and coffee for breakfast before heading down to transition to put my water-bottles on my bike in transition, and to check that everything was still in order. Then I headed back across the road to the hotel to get into my wetsuit before heading into the start area to hand my swim bag in.
As I walked down the promenade to go down the stairs onto the sand I walked straight into Nice Girl who seemed to be the only person as emotional as I was. It was awesome to see a friendly face, and quite special to be with one of my main inspirations for entering the race. As we waited on the beach together another familiar face was suddenly shaking my hand and wishing me luck: Mr Holmes was taking part in his second IronMan. There were supposedly boards on the beach so that we could “self-seed” ourselves when lining up on the beach. I couldn’t find them, and was pretty uncertain as to where in the line-up I was. I decided to just relax and take it as it came. I cannot possibly describe the feeling of standing on that beach amongst all the other athletes, looking around from face to face, and then facing out across the water, focussing in the directions of the first buoy and calming my nerves.
The 3.8km IronMan swim is two loops of a 1.9km course. My original feeling was that doing loops on each leg would be boring, however as race day approached I had become more comfortable with the idea, and think that it may be an advantage in terms of breaking each leg down into doable distances.
The swim start was nowhere near as bad as I expected it to be. I started a little back than I had initially planned to, and managed to swim my way through and wide of any trouble. The swim was pretty choppy, and by the second lap the rough water became quite challenging. The turn buoys are massive, and not too difficult to site. I did realise once I was up close to the two furthest buoys how hard the chop was actually pushing the swimmers off course! After completing the first loop, you come onto the beach, across the timing mats, and then back into the ocean for your second loop. On each loop, on the final short leg heading to the beach, I felt my hand push down on something soft. It was a little unnerving to be honest, but at the time I dismissed the “squishies” as plastic bags in under the water. Apparently they were jellyfish!
Putting your feet down on the sand for the second time is an amazing feeling, and you get to enjoy trotting out of the water with the crowds on the pier and the walkway cheering you on. You run up the beach, up a few stairs, across the timing mat, under the showers into transition, and through the foot baths. From there you head through the bag racks to grab your bike bag before heading into the changing tent to get ready for the bike. I had to pull on my Spec-Savers sponsor top, Zuma helmet, race belt and number, Specialized Trivent shoes (I had decided not to have my shoes on my bike) and socks, and my Rydon sunglasses.
The 180km IronMan bike is 3 loops of a 60km course.
I came out of the water quite far up in the field, so on the bike I was overtaken a LOT. I knew this was going to happen, and I just had to relax and accept it. I went at the pace I had hoped to do for the bike on the first loop, finishing it in just over 2 hours. This pace was unrealistic considering the howling wind, and ultimately cost me on the second loop. I think I should have eaten solid foods earlier, and by the start of the second loop, on the long climb into a strong headwind, I started to feel uncomfortable energy-wise. By the end of the day I would end up doubting myself twice: this was to be the first time I felt like I might actually not finish. I stopped at the aid station for a few minutes and had some apple and bananas to eat. I had two bottles of Hammer Perpetuem on my bike, but I am afraid that I think it’s time I accept that Perpetuem simply does not work for me. I took on water and Powerade at the aid stations for the remainder of the race.
The pros started lapping me in the last few kays of my second bike loop. They really are impressive, and came flying past me! The third loop was more comfortable, and I let myself stop at the same aid station again, this time to sit down and to eat sandwiches, fruit and biscuits. I finished the bike feeling fairly comfortable, and it was a great feeling to head into transition, hop off at the dismount line and hand my bike off to one of the volunteers (I originally thought this was only done for the pros) before heading into T2.
The IronMan run is 3 loops of a 14km course.
I went out pretty fast on the first run loop. The run started out nice and sunny, and the course is as good as flat, with only a tiny slope on the way up to the University section. The spectators lining the run course on Marine Drive were amazing. I eventually found myself looking at them, drawing energy and motivation from them, and willing them to shout my name and cheer me on (they can see your first name printed on your race number). To all the amazing people who lined the road for hours in that cold windy weather, thank you, thank you, thank you!
By the halfway mark I was still doing well with a time of 2 hours. Unfortunately, at this stage, just as darkness was falling, an ice-cold downpour of rain-soaked us all, and left me cold and worried. Remember I said in the bike section I doubted my ability to finish twice during the day? This was the second moment: I was really worried I would get hypothermia. Fortunately the freezing rain lasted only minutes. Shortly afterwards the amazing Miranda chicked me, gliding past me like a true champ!
At the start of the third lap I started chatting to a guy called Rory, and we actually ended up run / walking the final lap together. I was glad for the company, and whilst I was in no pain at all, my legs were pretty empty, and my final splits are a bit sad.
There is no way to describe the feeling that you get in the last 2km’s. Being able to take the turn into transition to head off the course and into the finish chute is enough to lift every last kilometre from your body as you run celebrating down the red carpet.
From here we were escorted by a volunteer through what needed to be done: I got my T-shirt and swim bag, and then had an awesome run down in the massage tent. Once outside again I was overcome by a serious case of shivering, so put on a warm top, and headed as fast as I was able to have a hot shower at the hotel.
After showering and getting into warm clothing, I headed over to transition to pick up my bike and my bike and run bags, and got them all safely back to the hotel room. I then took myself back to the finish-line to watch a couple of people finish — it was now about 11PM, and unfortunately the miserable weather meant it was simply too cold to hang about for long.
What I did right
- Raced within myself
- Adjusted continuously to how I was feeling
- Spent lots of time in transition at bike check-in getting comfortable with the layout and flow
- Smiled! Enjoy the crowds and they will be the best motivation you could ever have
Lessons learned — what I would do differently
- Nutrition: I think I should have eaten earlier on the bike
- Temperature: I was very cold on both the bike and run — almost disastrous — I needed sleeves or a base layer
- Loops are not so bad! It would have been worth driving the bike course, and cycling the run course beforehand though
- I went alone. You need support!