So the 2011 Ironman South Africa went down last month in Nelson Mandela Bay on the 11th April 2011. It has been over a month since that event but still the memories are fresh and tangible. Here goes a (lengthy) recount with photos from my experience as a spectator on that amazing day but first a memory from my childhood about Ironman.
The first time I heard of the Ironman event I was a young boy hanging out at Muizenberg Beach deriding the South Easter and onshore surf that day. We quickly moved onto talk of Hawaii (surfing’s Mecca) and surfing the perfect waves that the islands’ have to offer. While daydreaming ourselves into a stupor about getting the barrels of our life the conversation changed when someone mentioned this crazy challenge he had read about in a surfing mag that also took place in Hawaii. Our friend went on to tell us that a group of people did a 3.8km Swim, 180km Cycle and 42.2km Run in under 17 hours and while some won money the ultimate honour was completing this challenge in order to be called an Ironman. We all laughed and said he was talking rubbish and that he should stop reading comic books and grow up. He was upset and told us that he would bring the article to the beach and show us to prove that he wasn’t lying. He never did but the way he told the story and the sincerity in his voice gave me a lingering curiosity to find out more about this Ironman event and if something that sounded so incredibly unachievable actually even existed.
Move on nearly 25 years later and I arrived at Nelson Mandela Bay with a huge amount of excitement, curiosity and nervous energy as both a spectator and wannabee Ironman. I was there to watch friends (twitter handles included) and the Pro athletes take on Ironman South Africa (@IMSouthAfrica). Twitter really is a fantastic social medium as you get to share your thoughts, experiences and life with people from around the world. You sometimes are fortunate to actually meet these people and share an experience. Ironman South Africa was a good example of this.
Anyone watching me check in at the hotel would have thought I was taking part with the amount of baggage I had brought along, it was quite comical. I was so pumped to go to the event that I had brought up everything on the trip (except my bike). I had already made the conscious decision that I wanted to do Ironman South Africa in 2012 and was keen to do a recce on the course. I was so excited to be there the first day that I couldn’t resist taking a drive on the bike course. It was great to bump into one of our Ironman friends Morne Botha (@mohebo) out on the bike course haring along the beachfront stretching his legs a little. After a quick catch up I headed over to the Ironman Expo.
The Ironman expo although small in comparison to other events I have been to was really great. Everyone was super friendly and the vibe in the air was awesome. I even had a bit of a fan moment when I met Zola Budd who was there as a brand ambassador for Newton Running Shoes. Zola has a wealth of knowledge and is obviously passionate about her sport. It was really interesting chatting with her and she was such a good sport when I had my picture taken with her too. She even told me that she felt inspired enough to want to come back and give Ironman South Africa a go herself.
The other brand exhibitors were just as keen to impart their knowledge and for an Ironman wannabe like me I picked up some valuable tips on equipment, nutrition and training. Whilst at the expo I bumped into another Ironman friend Miranda Symons (who doubles as my physio) and as ever she was just about bouncing around the expo with a combination of energy, positivity and nerves about the big day. Feeling super inspired and pumped up to the hilt after leaving the Ironman expo I could have probably pushed the car to the airport to pick up my wife Bianca (@Beanker). The evening whizzed by and I was keen to get an early night and get up early so that I could get in an early swim with Morne (@mohebo) in the ocean.
It was still dark when we headed down to the beach on Saturday morning to enjoy a swim in the ocean. Living in the False Bay of Cape Town with its high shark activity has made me a little weary of swimming in our waters and I was literally frothing to get in my wetsuit and out into the warm waters of Nelson Mandela Bay. @Beanker and I met up with the lovely Monique Tays @mon_tays and then Morne and I joined up with the My Training Day group coached by the super friendly Kent and Claire Horner before heading out into the water. The marker buoys were out where the large Ironman buoys would be placed the next day and so it was a great chance to swim the course. The water was warm, clear and there was very little swell and so conditions were perfect. I thoroughly enjoyed the swim and once out of the water we watched the pros and age groupers rack their bikes. We headed back to the Hotel and then sat in the sunshine while watching the other events going down on the beachfront i.e. the Pritt IronKids and Vodacom Corporate Challenge. The organisers of Ironman South Africa really do a great job of getting everyone involved and into the spirit of the event. It was great watching the kids competing against each other and then finishing on the red carpet to collect their medals. That evening we joined up with Monique and Morne and had a pasta feast at Primi Piatti then headed back for an early night.
The morning of Ironman had arrived and once again I got up early and dashed down to the beach to go for a swim. The beachfront was already filling up and spectators were jockeying for the best seating and vantage points to watch the swim unfold. As I headed down to the water a small school of Dolphins arrived and cruised beyond the small surf inviting the Ironman participants into their playground. It was an awesome moment and I swam out to get a closer look. Once out the back I turned around and it was pretty incredible to see all the heads bobbing around in the water and the thousands of people lining the beachfront. It was almost time for the start and so I reluctantly exited the water and headed back to our viewing spot.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica played out and I could barely get the words out as I began to get a bit misty eyed with emotion, excitement and nerves. I wasn’t even taking part and I began thinking of how those on the beach waiting to start Ironman were getting through this (I will probably be an emotional wreck when I take part). The canon went off and Ironman South Africa had begun. The first Elites exited the water on lap 1 of the 2 lap swim in what seemed a very fast time. I cheered on local heroes’ @RAYTISSINK & @JamesCunnama along with the fresh looking @DrAmandaStevens who was the 1st lady out of the water and in the lead group. It was great to see my friends Miranda and Morne amongst all the other age groupers as they ran across the sand and headed out on the 2nd leg. Not even had the last age groupers exited the water than the leading swimmers had completed their 2nd leg and headed into T1. The transitions were fast and uncomplicated and I watched and learned. As our friends came in we watched the last few swimmers exit the water and we then headed back to the hotel for some breakfast to watch the Bike leg unfold.
From an elevated vantage point early on it was incredible to watch the Pros put the hammer down as they flew down the beachfront making travelling on the bike at high speed look so effortless. We headed down for a closer look and cheered everyone on. It was inspiring to see a blind age grouper out there on the course haring along with his guide on the bike leg, the phrase ‘Impossible is Nothing’ came to mind along with other great quotes. The guts and determination of the age groupers came to prominence as one took a heavy fall just ahead of us and was carried off the course to the side of the road for medical attention. Only to get back on his bike 10 minutes later, battered and bruised and continue his Ironman journey. The day moved on and the news from the announcers Paul Kaye (@kayeman) and Mike Finch (@MikeFinchSA) was that there was a battle Royale going down on the Bike Course between Marino van Hoenecker and Raynard Tissink with the lead changing hands on numerous occasions. Chrissie Wellington had quickly taken over the lead on the bike leg and was beginning to open up a sizeable gap on the chasing women. It was going to be a thriller coming into T2 and the Run leg. We only got a glimpse our friends as they whizzed by and we finally spotted Brad Brown (@BigBradBrown) who we had been tweeting with on twitter for months before the event.
The men came charging into T2 with van Hoenecker in first closely followed by Tissink. The top men looked incredibly strong and extremely focussed as they headed out onto the run with Ironman glory in their sights. We took up position on the road as we watched the Pros come out of T2 and cheered on Ray, James, Chrissie, Amanda, Kent and Claire. We cheered, waved and shouted words of encouragement as we saw Miranda, Morne and Brad as they took on the final leg of their journey towards becoming an Ironman, the Run.
The run was gruelling as we watched some of the Elites drop out and age groupers test the limit of their endurance. On the way back to the hotel I noticed an age grouper walk off to the side of the road and then all alone he propped himself up against a wall as he started vomiting. I went over to see if I could help and he told me the pain and nausea he was feeling was getting too much. He became quite emotional as he started to lose hope that he wouldn’t finish. I put my arm around him as he was hunched over and I started to offer words of support and encouragement and tried to lighten the mood with a couple of jokes. We chatted for a while and shared a couple of laughs and I could see his spirit rise. He looked up at me and I nodded at him then he smiled and said “it’s my last lap I can do this”. He then slowly walked away and then amazingly his walk turned into a jog. That steely determination in his eyes will stay with me forever.
I headed back from the hotel down to the Finish to watch the Pros finish as by now Raynard Tissink had opened up a significant lead over Andreas Bocherer (van Hoenecker had dropped out) and was on the home straight.
It was great to watch his emotions as he hit the red carpet knowing that he was going to win Ironman South Africa 2011 and that he had broken the course record also. Once in a generation an athlete comes along that redefines their sport Chrissie Wellington (@chrissiesmailes) is this person to Ironman.
She broke Ironman South Africa Women’s Course Records for both the Bike and the Run and also had the fastest Run on the day overall. In doing so she set up an amazing race to break her own Ironman World Record!
It was great to watch the Pros come through but it was with even greater anticipation and excitement that I watched our friends each run down the red carpet to the applause and admiration of the spectators as they each enjoyed their moment in the limelight crossing the Ironman finish line to the phrase “you are an Ironman!” as they joined the global Ironman family. Their Ironman experience wasn’t over there though as Multiple World Champion and 2011 Ironman South Africa winner Chrissie Wellington gave each Ironman finisher their Ironman Medal. Now at what sporting event would you ever experience that, truly unique and memorable.
After Chrissie had given our friends their medals there were some tears and big smiles all round.
Despite a long day out this didn’t stop these Ironman finishers from staying to enjoy a well earned beer or two and the festivities that followed as they welcomed their fellow Ironman home until the 17 hour cut off. It was a long day as a spectator but the time actually went surprisingly quickly as there was always something happening. As a spectator event you get so close to the action that you almost feel a part of it. That in itself is a unique experience.
The journey home to Cape Town was with mixed emotions as I really didn’t want the Ironman weekend to end. The whole Ironman South Africa experience was quite simply put a life changing experience for me. If you don’t know what Ironman is all about or perhaps are curious to do one I highly recommend taking a trip to watch Ironman South Africa. Only when you see firsthand how tough this race is but what is possible when you put your mind to something and make sacrifices in order to achieve your goals will you believe how special it is to be an Ironman.
Ironman South Africa has inspired me to continue to explore my own possibilities as a sportsman and to put my own endurance limits to the test and challenge my mind, body and soul. I have signed up to my first Iron distance event this year in Challenge Cape Town (www.challengecapetown.com) who knows perhaps I will see you lining up with me next year at Ironman South Africa 2012.
After all as Coldplay once said in a song “If you never try you’ll never know how much you’re worth”.
Dream it, Do it, live your dreams impossible is nothing!