April 25, 2012

Race Report: Ironman South Africa 2012

This is a race report I cannot just dive into. It’s one that has to go back 6 months to fully understand what went down this weekend. No, that’s not correct either. You need to go back 8 years, to a time when I met an extremely gifted, hard-working, never-say-die athlete called Tristan Kelly. My first run in the fairest Cape was with his crew of guys and I got OWNED. Over the next few years, I got owned many times by him.

Eventually, with hard work, I was able to match him at some races. He never gives up. Ever. I remember a SA Triathlon Champs where we ran 10-15 seconds apart the entire run and he caught me with 500m to go, out of nowhere seemingly. That strength astounded me.

So when I heard he was entering IMSA in 2012, I got an awesome little drop of the stomach and I knew I would have to be 100% or pull out every trick in the book to get to the line ahead of him come 22 April. I knew that no weather would stop him. I knew he would put in every minute of training required to be the best he could be, a scary sight when he is 100%. When anyone asked who I thought would be my toughest competition, his name was first, every time.

And so, we stood on the beach on 22 April, together, to face the weather, the course and each other. 9 hours and 32 minutes later he crossed the line 68 seconds behind me. In the middle, there is a magnificent story and I hope to get at least two thirds of it into this post. First, I had to salute him for 8 years of racing together, for a friendship despite our competitiveness and for making me go to new places in the Pain Cave on Sunday.

Secondly, I wanted to salute every athlete who made it to the beach that morning. 250 people pulled the pin before that. Another 200 odd didn’t make it to the tape. They are still heroes in my books. If you didn’t make the timing cuts, you are still an inspiration to anyone for attempting that course on that day. I have never seen weather like that on a race day. I hope I never see weather like that ever again on a day where just getting to the line is an achievement.

Thirdly, I need to say a special thanks to the IMSA crew. Organisers, race directors, volunteers, etc. They made the day bearable. Always smiling, always making a plan and very importantly for me, cleaning up as they went, ensuring a safe, clean course for us. Very Pure Planet Racing and worth every cent we pay for an entry fee. I salute you all!

Now, onto my day…

This year, I have had to manage time and niggles more than ever before. An iffy Achilles Heel since November 2011, a proper sinus infection 10 days before the race, 60 hour work weeks as the norm in Feb and March. Looking back at schedules, I averaged 16 hours per week of training. That is all I could manage and I was hoping for a very controlled day. It was not to be.

After changing into my wetsuit in the rain (a treat all on its own) I handed my bag to my support crew and hit off for the beach for my warm-up for the swim, to find that slow peace that comes before the race. As I put on my swim cap, it tore, straight down the middle, in two. Not ideal considering the water temperature.

I spent 20minutes looking for the lady with the swim caps. She was not in any of the four places I was told she would be and in the end, I stood on the beach, front row, sans warmth protection, ready to swim through the PRO pack. I was very calm, but knew it would be a case of hurt, relax, and hurt again.

The gun went off; I got a fantastic start into the water and was in the pack I wanted to be in before the first buoy. I settled into the pack as we rounded it and at that moment we hit the chop in the water. Your top and bottom half of the body were never moving in the same direction. You swallowed plenty of the Indian Ocean. The swim was survival, most highlighted by the fact that the swim took 60minutes, rather than the 48-49 I was expecting. I sat in the back of the pack for both laps and just got through it. The occasional smell of boat fuel and pulling on a random jelly fish here and there were the only things that distracted from the task of swimming between two people and laughing a little when the swell pushed us into a knot.

I opted for a gilet and arm warmers in T1. I knew the goal of riding in a legal pack of PRO guys was gone when I looked at the weather. The goals for the day, time and experience wise, were gone. I had to deal with that quickly. I knew you could never make up what you lost on a day like this, in other words:

The tailwind section never makes up for the headwind slog.

The body that drove me at 70.3 was never present on Ironman day. There was no smoothness, no effortless power, and no open mind. I knew I would have to push it where it had never gone before. I knew it would not be pretty. I knew I would spend the day holding back, but charging, just a little too hard, to get what I needed by the red carpet. I knew I would need every trick in the book to get to the line first in my age group.
I rode conservatively, especially on the hills. You don’t want to see you`re going much slower than you anticipated. But you have to accept that. I think that was the toughest part of the entire day – accepting the weather and making the most of it. For many people I spoke to after the race that didn’t happen and they pushed, chasing a number perhaps. It ended in many tears.

At the top of lap 2 on the bike, while refilling the aero bottle between the aerobars, a gust of wind pushed a rider I was lapping 90 degrees out onto the road and I had to throw my own nutrition away to avoid him, desperately avoiding a crash. When I looked back for my bottle, which had all my calories in, it was gone. The wind had blown it back down the hill and it was nowhere to be seen.


It was time to make the most of it and accept that the tummy would be a mess later. I couldn’t let it affect my day.

It was a battle out there against the wind but the real battle was in the mind. Holding back at the right times, pushing a little to make sure you got the most out of every piece of the road, where the wind may be turning, etc. In a world of instant fixed, instant satisfaction and every piece of information we want at our fingertips, Ironman South Africa 2012 represented everything opposite. Patience, hope, unknowing circumstances around every turn, lack of information about what to expect in the next hour…

At 120km into the ride I was passed by a pack of 4 riders riding a maximum of 4m apart. I moaned at their drafting but got nothing back from them as they moved up the road. I asked a Marshall to check out their tactics and got told to keep quiet and let them do their job. Not ideal.

At 150km my arms and legs were cramping. Not ideal. Balancing the bike for 4 hours in 80km/h gusts of wind was taking its toll. I had 30km to ride and 42km to run and a charging Tristan Kelly to deal with. The rest of our age group was fading fast and at this point I had to have some serious words with myself to motivate myself for the run. I knew it would be close and I knew I would have to squeeze everything I could out of my body to keep that Kelly at bay.

T2 was quick, leaving the visor behind as the wind was now plain old disgusting. The FAAS800’s were out onto the road and I wanted to keep the distance steady and ran the first 10km very steadily. I had to keep him at bay for as long as possible. If he smelt I was weakening or thought he could catch me for sure, I knew he would find the strength.

The body that produced some incredible runs in training left me on the day. As I started the run, I just knew that I would have to fight for a 3:15 run, which is what I thought it would take. My legs never bounced. I never felt smooth. I was happy to deal with those two facts. I was, however, unwilling to deal with a 2nd place. I was ready to fight for the title.

The run had its own challenges. I forgot to mix my Rehidrat Sport in the morning and started with plain powder. When I added water, running 4:10 per kilometre, it leaked everywhere over my legs, causing the back of my knees to become so sticky that the skin pulled off eventually from when the knee bends and straightens.

The gel flask lid I had turned out to be faulty and I couldn’t get the gel I have trained on for months in either. This left me taking gel and coke off the course, which caused my stomach to bloat on lap 2 just to add to the discomfort a little because, you know, the day was definitely not hard enough already.

A mini disaster in the varsity on lap 2 when a spectator stepped across the road into me and pushed me onto the grass, where I cramped and the legs seemed to come off a little, losing what little rhythm I had left.

At the end of lap 2, I had 3min. I started with 5min. I knew I had to keep him at 3min till I was out the varsity. I knew this would require a monumental effort, as I also knew he would speed up till then to see if he could catch me. I had to remain out of sight. So I ran, from 30-38km, anaerobically. I kid you not. Panting hard like an Olympic distance race, I pushed as hard as I could, which only gave me about 15sec per kilometre, but I had to give it everything. I didn’t look back, not once.

At the aid station at the back of the varsity, I looked back. I knew if I couldn’t see him, I had it in the bag and could chill.

No sight.

Time to run a little more relaxed and enjoy the last 4km. I tried to cheer on others, high five some of the people who had been out there shouting for me all day and I really slowed down in the last kilometre, soaking up what I believe is my finest performance to date.

I walked the red carpet. Arms rose. Fists pumped. Relief. Joy. Noise. Quiet. Calm.

I was going nowhere until I had embraced Tristan. He came around the corner 68 seconds later. The embrace was powerful, respectful and humble. It was over.

As I sit here, 3 days later in the mountain of email, admin and deliverables, I wonder how long this feeling will last. How long will it take before I can contemplate hurting like that again? Why didn’t the body feel like it did in Jan? Was it the reduced hours training? The niggles leading into the race?

I pulled every trick in the book on the day. To give you an idea of how far the rabbit hole goes, here is a quick list, and let’s see how many of them you did on the day?

1. Ducked under the start banner at 1sec to go.
2. Rode every racing line on the route where possible.
3. Skipped special needs on the bike.
4. Urinated whilst riding along the coast road, at 55km/h.
5. Urinated while running in the varsity, running on the grass, when nobody was around, at 4min30 per kilometre.
6. Had all my nutrition on the bike and nothing in the bike bag to pick up and carry out of T1.
7. Same for the run – all in the Fuelbelt.

Do these things make up the win? I don’t think so.

Nobody knows exactly what made up those 68 seconds. They don’t really matter to me. I loved the battle, the effort and the experience required to get them. That was my experience on the day. Nothing else could have come close and even though it was not what I was after, initially, it was more than I hoped for, by the end of the day.

Quick thanks to those who make it possible. BoE Private Clients, Rehidrat Sport, Velocity Sports Lab, Puma & Orca for kit on the day, support on the road and financial support to make it to the start line. My season is complete with qualifications for three World Championships and from what I am told, possibly the first double age group win at 70.3 and IMSA in the same year.

It’s time to reflect, celebrate and plan, because truth be told….there are many more adventures to be had.

Photos courtesy of Carol Brink.

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