My fifth Ironman race found me in Port Elizabeth South Africa, hope of the only race in Africa. With Asia, Europe, North America and Australia down, this leaves only Brazil to go on my quest for a race on every continent. At least that isn’t until next May.
I arrived in Port Elizabeth (PE) on Thursday after spending a few days in Pretoria with my friend Viwe. I always enjoy the atmosphere before the race where there are all these super fit (or in my case not-so-super fit) people who have put in many, many long hours to get to their goal of the start line. There is also the usual showing off with lots of T-shirts, hats and other paraphernalia showing which races people have done etc. I always endeavour not to wear anything like this—in fact I was slightly embarrassed that I would need to race in my Ironman Kentucky finisher’s hat since I didn’t have my usual race gear with me.
Unfortunately, my build up to the race was less than optimum. Not only had I spent the previous few weeks on demanding business trips to Kiribati and Timor-Leste, but due to the untimely death of my brother-in-law in Australia I was not able to get home to New Zealand and get my race bike, nutrition, and other gear. I have been training and racing with a power meter for the last four years and rely on this to ensure that I don’t overdo it the bike (which is always my tendency), as well as using very fast race wheels, so I did not look forward to racing without it. But nothing I could do. The nutrition was probably more of a concern but we managed to get the Australian branch of the company I use to send me something close to what I normally have at the last minute (i.e. got it at my hotel the night before I left Australia!) so that was partially covered. At least I had my wetsuit and my training bike from Sydney…
PE is a delightful seaside town and the swim, start and finish points were located right on the beach. On the Friday morning before Sunday’s race I decided that it was time to practice my ocean swimming: I had not been in the ocean for a swim since a year ago when training for Ironman Australia. This was not the confidence builder that I had anticipated…
The best way of describing it was like a washing machine. There were serious waves and it was impossible to see the sighting buoys marking out the course. Fortunately, there were quite a few people on surf boards so I would stop and ask them which way to head. I was tossed about from pillar to post and it got even worse when I turned to run parallel to the beach. A rescue boat came over to see if I needed help. Yes, but I was loathe to interrupt a planned swim so instead I asked them for a point of reference: they said to head for one of the cranes in the distance at the port. That helped to a degree, except when the water was so rough I couldn’t see the crane. I decided that this was getting out of my comfort zone (which is quite large!) so headed back towards the pier. Problem was there were times when I couldn’t see it either. For good measure I swallowed some sea water. I was pleased to exit, throwing up on the way out which at least cleared my system of some of the Indian Ocean which I had digested.
In the afternoon I decided to ride 30 km of the bike course. It was a lovely ride along the ocean, with the wild ocean breaking over the rocky shore. I flew on the outward leg, which of course meant a really strong headwind on the return leg. I struggled to maintain 20 km/h. At least I was not alone with this as a number of other cyclists were making as little headway as I was. There was one exception: this woman stormed by with a solid disc rear wheel! The latter make bike handling really, really hard. I recognized the bike immediately: it was Natasha Badmann, the Swiss professional triathlete who has won IM South Africa three times and holds the woman’s course record. No wonder she was able to do so well.
I recalled reading in the race guide that depending upon the wind direction that race would either be a (i) effort at surviving, or (ii) a brilliant day. Obviously with the sea and cycling today this was a case of (i). I hoped for (ii) on the day of the race!
I went back to my room with serious concerns about how Sunday would fare. My race preparations had not been the best, and I was also seriously exhausted from work and personal challenges. At least I was getting a couple of hours of sleep every afternoon which was helping the latter. My wife Lis told me that there were four scenarios: (i) I don’t have to race; (ii) I could race but just withdraw; (iii) I could take it easy and just finish within the 17 h cutoff; or (iv) I would smoke the day. (i) and (iv) were definitely out, as would be (ii) if I could at all help it. This left me with (iii): suck it up and do the best I could.
I began to get my head around racing, assembling the gear I had for the race. As you can see from the photo to the left, there is quite a lot of it. I walked myself through the various stages of the race transitions, visualizing what I needed to be putting on for that leg of the race.
There were two yellow bands which have an interesting story. At the race registration I was approached by a woman doing research into training, tapering and racing. I agreed to participate. During the race she would be at certain locations and I would call out on a scale of 1-20 my perceived effort, and on a scale of 0-10 my pain level. She was having trouble enlisting volunteers, but I was happy to help.
I went to the ‘Pasta Party’ which is always fun. I met Patrick and Marlize on the bus and sat with them at the dinner. Patrick was aiming for a 10 h finish and hopefully to qualify for the Kona World Championship (usually the top 3 in each age group qualify). It was Marlize’s first IM. They showed the usual inspirational video. It really is worth watching – especially the swim section!
On Saturday I took my bike down to the transition area where it joined the other 1750 competitor’s bikes. The transition was very well organized wherein they had racks with hooks on them for our bike and run bags. This made it very easy to find the bags. I used the opportunity to check out the transition area: it had the longest run to bikes of any race I had been in. I measured it as over 150 m. Not fun running 150 m in cycling shoes…
One unique aspect of Ironman is that you race the same course, at the same time as professional athletes. In fact that is one of the complaints of the professional women: they have to fight their way through seriously fast ‘Age Groupers’ (AG) during the race. Because of this, at the Kona World Championships the AG now start 30 minutes after the professionals. In what other sport could you rub shoulders with World Champions who have to set up their gear in the same way at the same time as the AG? I snapped the photo to the left of one of the pros being interviewed.
The pros have some very serious bikes. The photo at the top left is Natasha Badmann’s Cheetah. You can see why it stood out when she passed me. Of course many of the AG athletes run the same equipment…
I had a bad night before the race with only four hours of sleep. At least I had little chance of being late to transition. I left my hotel at 05:30 and joined the athletes and their supporters heading over to start the long day. After making a few changes to my transition bags, adding my drinks to my bike and pumping the tyres, it was time to don my wet suit and head down to the beach. The race conditions were nothing short of perfect. The wind was coming in the optimum direction for the ride and the temperature was not too hot. In fact, by the end of the day the woman’s winner would have set the fastest time ever for an Ironman distance race, and the man knocked 20 minutes off the previous course record. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t do so well …
Since I am a weak swimmer I have learned to put myself to the side and towards the back of the pack. Otherwise, you get swum over by the faster swimmers which is not particularly fun. The canon went off and those at the front ran into the water, while many of us wandered down. The water was cool but at least there were few waves, at least compared to Friday. I was able to quickly get into my rhythm of three strokes, breath left, three strokes, breath right. My right shoulder was not too sore—I had blown it out in April last year and it took lots of physiotherapy before I was able to start swimming again in November. The only challenges came when we came to the buoys where hundreds of swimmers are aiming at the same point. I try to be really aware of those around me so that I won’t be kicked in the face, which happens all too easily. I was able to work hard and focused on form as much as I could, given the regular contact with other swimmers, even between the buoys. I had to stop a few times and reposition my goggles after a few wild arms whacked me in head. It was a two loop course with a beach run in between. I did the first loop in just under 43 minutes, and the second loop in just over 43 minutes, for a 1:26:21 on the swim. Not bad given all my shoulder problems—thanks to my physios Alex, Helen and Anne!
It was then through the showers, up off the beach, grab my bike bag, and change to my bike gear. As always I struggled a bit to get my wet suit off, but eventually I was kitted up and headed out the tent for the long run to the bike. I was pleased to see that there were still a lot of bikes racked, which meant that my swim was passable.
As you can see from the elevation chart below, the three loop bike ride had some climbs in it. However, they were quite gradual compared to some races (like IM Switzerland) and we were rewarded with very fast tail wind inspired downhills on the other side. On the return to leg there was a headwind which to a certain degree negated the outward leg.
You can see from my bike splits the differences these legs made, with my averaging almost 40 km/h on the outbound leg—in spite of the uphill section-and then 22 km/h on the return leg. Unfortunately the data for the last sections got messed up which is a pity as by the third leg I was quite fatigued, not tired from the effort, but a core fatigue which made me just want to have a snooze. However, I managed to better my goal time of 6:30 which riding within my target heart rate range so the race was going as planned.
I had a good transition and was soon out on the road for the run. The first few kilometres were fine, and I kept to my target pace of around 7:00/km. However, then I was overwhelmed by fatigue again. All I could think about was to lie down and have a sleep for an hour and then get back to the race! It was like my body was saying you can finish this, but first you need to put something back into me. It was quite strange as it was not due to nutrition, my muscles felt that they had fuel to burn. I even went so far as to confirm with a referee that I would be disqualified if I popped off to my hotel room for a snooze (very tempting as it was on the run course).
So I walked for a bit. Quite a bit. Then I decided time to break the problem down into small chunks. So I walked between lamp posts, then ran between lamp posts. Then I extended it to running two lamp posts, then a kilometre. After I got to kilometre 18 suddenly the fatigue went away—and this was right at the bottom of the hill up to the university. So I ran up the hill and kept on going, managing 7:04 for the next 10 kilometres. Very strange. I then had a difficult time for a few kilometres, then it went away again. By this time I was on the last lap and at kilometre 37, with 5 km to go, I decided that it was time to reach down and pull the finger out. I resolved that I would run the last 5 km unless my body imploded or I injured myself. I managed 6:41/km, including (for me) a blistering 6:00/km for the last two kilometres.
As I turned into the finishing chute I was glad the day was over. I’ve learned to enjoy the moment going down to the finish with the crowds cheering you on, so I didn’t mind when a woman sprinted past me. Proves nothing except she missed the moment. With 13:33 this race falls between my best two – Kentucky and Australia, and worst two – Switzerland and Korea. Given the race build up and challenges I’m pleased with that time, my only sadness is that on such a perfect day I had such an imperfect performance. Unlike Chrissie Wellington who was all smiles with her 8:33.
My final performance was:
- 959/1466 finishers (about 1750 starters)
- 807/1189 of male finishers
- Swim: 1:26:21 for 916/1466 (63/87 in age group)
- T1: 6.44
- Cycle: 6:17:15 for 710/1466 (54/87 in age group)
- T2: 4:55
- Run: 5:38:10 for 884/1466 (64/87 in my age group).
Postscript: On the last bit of the second leg of the bike I was passed by several of the male professionals. They were positively flying. On the return leg I also saw Chrissie Wellington, the best female triathlete in the world (by far). She had her trademark smile as she was cycling along, also making amazing progress. Later, I saw her on the run, also smiling as she ate up the field. She ended up coming 8th overall, which meant that she beat about a dozen professional male triathletes. This has given rise to the term to be ‘’chicked’ which is when you are a professional male and get beaten by Chrissie. She’s absolutely amazing, but also a real class act.