The history of Ironman racing abounds with stories of endurance, will power and sheer courage on an epic scale. The capacity of these incredible athletes to drive themselves relentlessly day after day through the pain barrier and way beyond makes them a breed apart. They redefine heroism in sport. The suffering is gratuitous, the mileage they cover Herculean, and both make a crucible in which a unique character is forged: an apparently cheerful indifference to the pain inflicted by bike, footwear and road, suffused with the transcendent desire to conquer both.
The greatest battle is not physical but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always be answered by the quiet the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Call no man brave, say the Spanish, say only that on a particular day he showed himself brave. Such strength of character radiates from every person who ever attempted to finish an Ironman (never mind race) who has shown the requisite courage not to yield, has won his dignity, day after day.
The true test of any competitors mettle is the road. How much punishment can you take? You will only find out after you hear the voice in your head saying no, no you’ve had it, any more of this battering and you’re going to weaken fatally, and yet, for some reason best left to God and guesswork, carrying on anyway. Every time that happens, into a savage headwind… on the sharp rolling hills of your weekly long run… the will-sapping hauls of the winters in the Western Cape, the experience is part of a continuum, the repeated battle against surrender.
No crowds cheer us lesser mortals up the big climbs, but the mountains are open and mountains are rarely if ever finished with you. No matter how often you climb them, you never beat them: each time you start at the bottom, from scratch. Reputation will not take you up a climb. The physical battle has always to be repeated. Through every repeat, mental strength accumulates. So make sure your tyres are correctly inflated, your shoes properly tied, because every mountain is a test.
Behind glory lies the misery of training, the slog of getting through bad days, the torment of going at less than your best and the absolute conviction that giving up is never an option. Herein lies the heroism of this beautiful sport the inner revelation that makes the Ironman athlete in particular, impervious to ordinary weakness because every long ride and long run he has ever made exposes him to that defeatist voice; he has known it, faced it and conquered the fear of it, again and again and again.
As Ironman South Africa approaches, this is a salute to the 1800 odd athletes participating in 2011.