So I finally have plucked up the courage to write about my experience of doing my first Ironman distance triathlon. I have put it off as I guess I knew once I had written about Ironman that I would be closing a chapter on something that I have worked so long and hard towards achieving. It is hard to put into one post everything I experienced in the lead up to the event and then during and after. There have been so many parts to my Ironman journey that it is impossible to do my entire experience any justice without perhaps writing a small book. So I am rather going to write specifically about the day itself and do a follow up post about my Ironman journey and the effect it has had on me. So get comfortable, grab something to drink and join me on my recount of that amazing day back on 22nd April 2012………………
Ironman South Africa was held in Port Elizabeth on Sunday 22nd April. @beanker and I took some time off work and flew up to Port Elizabeth on the Thursday morning (19th April). We had already entrusted the transit of our bikes to IMSA with Focus on the Finish Line, a fantastic service offered by Ironman event MC Paul Kaye and his lovely wife Kelly (I highly recommend it to triathletes travelling to IMSA or 70.3). We checked into the Town lodge just up from Hobie Beach as we had stayed there the previous year and were happy with the proximity and relaxed vibe.
The days leading into the day of the race I managed to enjoy the atmosphere, expo and catching up with lots of friendly faces without getting too stressed out. It was bizarre as for the first time I felt I was going into a race feeling far too relaxed about what race morning would bring. It was only the day before when the event organisers were talking about possibly cancelling the swim and making the event a duathlon due to the horrendous forecast that I got a little upset. Whilst I could understand the organisers’ safety concerns I wasn’t interested in doing an event that was not an actual Ironman. A friend warned me about my reaction saying “be careful what you wish for!”
I woke up the next morning at 4am feeling relaxed, refreshed and eager to get going. I didn’t have to open the curtains in our room to know that the wind was howling and it was raining also. I looked outside and surveyed the ocean that was actually quite flat. The offshore gusts could be seen moving rapidly across the water and although I expected the bike leg to be tough I knew that the swim also was going to be interesting. I was kind of glad that the weather was as bad as it was because it made me decide to not put pressure on myself. I vowed that no matter what happened and how hard the day became I would make the most of my first Ironman experience and enjoy it all the way to the finish. Thankfully we had a little reprieve from the weather whilst I was going into transition and I managed to get in and out before the rain came down again. I took a moment to secure two items in my bike’s tuckbox that I wanted to have with me the whole day. The St Christopher from my Nana (my late Grandmother) that I always wear and the chain that @lushyluc gave me so that I would have her with me every step of the way. After transition @beanker and I headed over to the Boardwalk to seek shelter and hook up with @mohebo and @leighwatermouse. I was thankful to have an Ironman with me while getting ready to lighten the mood and thankfully provide me with tape for my neck that I had chaffed quite badly two days previously. It wasn’t long until we had to make our way to the start.
It is hard to describe my feelings as I walked down to the beach along with all the other Ironman starters that day. In that moment when the barriers separated us from our families, friends and loved ones it almost felt like I was being embraced and welcomed into another family. No words were required to share the emotions I was feeling only a shared sense of mutual respect, pride and excitement. We got down to the water’s edge and it was a lot more relaxed than I had expected with no jostling for position. I calmly walked down the left hand side and positioned myself just behind the tape next to a couple of familiar faces including @rustywilsenach, Marc du Rooy and @alecriddle too. I was in esteemed company and I began feeling a little nervous. Then all went quiet and Nkosi Sikelel i’Africa began playing out, I tried to sing but started getting too emotional and decided to look back one last time at the promenade and around at my fellow triathletes it was an incredible feeling. I stared back out at the Ocean and readied myself my Ironman was about to begin.
BOOM and it was on! I sprinted towards the water with a couple of guys in front of me and hundreds to my right. I jumped the first swell and then went under the second and started the 2 lap 3.8km swim leg. I had a great view of the field next to me sprinting the 300m out to the first buoy, luckily I had a good start and didn’t get too hammered as I made the first turn. The 2nd buoy was a 700m stretch and it was tough going with the offshore wind and current moving us off course and the increasing chop making it difficult for me to find a rythmm as well as sight properly. I just ended up tickling the toes of the swimmer in front of me and swam on. The 2nd turn was a bit of a scrum as I got sandwiched against the buoy and punched in the back of my head for my troubles. I managed to get some clear water on the 3rd buoy and sighting wasn’t nearly as bad. The first 1.9km loop went by and I was disappointed to do it in 34 minutes. I headed out for the 2nd loop and it was pretty grim as the conditions worsened with sighting and a strong off shore making it tough and pulling everyone off course and out into the bay. The 2nd buoy turn didn’t go too great as I got swam over by a pretty huge guy and forced under the buoy having to breaststroke out to the other side and find a spot to break the surface. I carried on unhindered and eventually took the last turn to the beach. I was pushing pretty hard to get to the beach but when I looked up I seemed to not be going anywhere. After what seemed like an eternity I looked up and realised I was in a rip along with a couple of other guys. We looked at each other conferred and then we swam across to where the other swimmers were going out on their 2ndloop and swam near them to get into the beach. It worked and I was both relieved and disappointed when I looked at my watch that reflected a 1:12 swim. I didn’t realise at the time that everyone was having a hard time of it and even the pros times were much slower than in previous years.
I headed up the beach into transition grabbed my bag and headed to change into the tent for the Bike Leg. I didn’t realise that there were women in the changing tent as I pulled my wetsuit off to put my kit on. Definitely the last time I don’t wear a tri suit underneath as I embarrassingly flashed two of the helpers who I quickly asked to turn around. I hurriedly got changed to escape my moment of embarrassment and ran out of the tent and almost straight into @paulingpen who was covering the event. I was having sunscreen applied by a helper as he snapped a few pics and we chatted briefly before he wished me luck and I continued on. I found my bike pretty quickly and headed out onto a very windy course.
Cycling is not my strong point and I tried to work hard at it in the lead up to Ironman aspiring to finish the bike leg in less than 6 hours. However I was not prepared for what awaited me on the bike leg. The 180km bike course consists of 3 loops of 60km and starts pretty flat going into a gentle climb of 10km to the highest point at 183m. After that it is rolling hills for a time and then after about 40kms it’s downhill and flat back to the start. The wind was blowing at a consistent 50kmph with gusts of over 60kmph at times.(check out this youtube video of conditions!!) I literally held on for dear life as we cycled straight into the wind for the first half of the loop and after nearly getting blown off a couple of times I was even nervous to take my bottles from the cage. The first loop went ok as I completed it on 2 hours despite getting overtaken by what seemed several hundred people. The second loop started well but close to the halfway point I was cold and started having chronic lower back pain preventing me from getting down on my tri bars. It was frustrating and I was cursing on more than one occasion. At the end of the 2nd loop I was relieved to see @beanker who passed me my compression socks but I didn’t want to take a windbreaker as I knew it would hold me back even more. I swapped my drinks bottles which were now warm and replaced them with cold ones. I got back on the bike and headed out to complete the 3rd loop. It was near the top of the hill on Walmer Boulevard when I began feeling a bit flat and realised I hadn’t taken on much nutrition during the bike leg. I slowed to a crawl and reached out to those offering food at the tables and I grabbed bananas, biscuits, biltong and stuffed them in my back pocket. It was near the halfway point of the 3rd loop that the pain in my back was almost unbearable and I thought I was becoming delusional as I spotted what looked like a tortoise trying to cross the road rather precariously. As I got closer I realised it was a tortoise and feeling sorry for the poor little guy I stopped, picked him up and carried him across the road and into the bush on the other side. I thought i would get some stick for stopping mid race and helping him but instead lots of people actually clapped and shouted their approval. The remainder of that leg went by a bit quicker and I arrived in T2 completing the bike leg on 7 hours. As I put my running shoes on I hoped my back would ease and I’d be able to finish respectably.
I headed out of T2 and onto the 42.2km Run that is a flat course consisting of 3 loops of 14km. The wind had not abated and it began to drizzle a little also. My legs felt a little heavy so I decided to not force a pace but rather wait and see how my legs responded. It was a couple of kms until they did and I eventually got into a good rhythm. I knew that my time expectations for the day were blown and I decided that come what may I would soak up the vibe of the spectators and enjoy the run and the remainder of my first Ironman as much as I could. The weather was seriously miserable but the supporters were amazing as they came out in force and full of cheer for everyone taking part. It was a completely different vibe to any other race that I have taken part in and being able to see my wife and friends along the route was awesome. @staceyrehbock in particular was a cheerleader of note literally screaming support and motivation as I passed her and preventing me from walking on more than one occassion. With the looped course I got to see some of the pros doing their thing along with plenty of familiar faces such as @kez_delport, @clairehorner, @mohebo, @raouldejongh, @davetalbot, @rustywilsenach, @kenthorner to name but a few. I even offered some words of encouragement to top age grouper @rohankennedy who was walking as I passed him on my first loop while he was on his way in to the finish though he looked a little confused.
I was so wrapped up in what was happening around me that the first 21km went by on 2 hours and I suddenly began to believe that I could run close to 4 hours. It was near the 25km mark though when things changed and I literally hit the wall and was forced to a walk. My legs were fine and I wasn’t tired but I had absolutely nothing in the tank and couldn’t figure out why
Note: Only later would I realise when counting my bottles from the bike leg that I had finished only one bottle of my @HammerSA Perpetuem mix out of my planned 4 bottles for the whole 7 hours I was out on the bike leg. It was a hard lesson on nutrition to be schooled on and one I would have preferred to not have had during the race.
It wasn’t long before the cold set in and I started shivering uncontrollably. I was thankful to see @beanker at special needs and I was grateful to be able to put a jacket on. The remaining 17kms became a walking/running picnic as I literally took on any food and liquid I could find at the water and nutrition tables. This is one massive plus about a well organised event like Ironman as I could literally have pitched up with no nutrition on the day as everything you could possibly need was catered for, it was awesome! During those kilometres of walking/jogging and refuelling I got the opportunity to meet so many people along the way and share in their experiences of their day out at Ironman. My friend and training partner Miranda Symons eventually caught me on the 2nd loop coinciding with the start of the rain and me showing my disapproval by slowing to a walk and thrusting my arms outwards, lifting my head towards the sky and laughing loudly. It must have looked comical as she burst out laughing just as she came up behind me until as she passed and realised it was me and then asked in a concerned tone if I was ok. I smiled and said yes and that she looked great and that she should keep pushing hard to the finish.
It was a while later whilst stopping to get my final band and a funky neon glowstick (duly placed in my visor) that I saw another Ironman first timer and fellow @satoriathletics runner Sascha Georgiev. It was awesome to see him and we high fived each other and then ran together and chatted for a while. I pulled up with stomach cramps and had to walk and told Sascha to go ahead. It was dark now and many of the people on the course became unrecognisable as each of us continued our journey to the finish. During those times when I was on my own my mind drifted and I thought about @beanker who had been there for me as my second the whole day and who had been so supportive and confident in me doing Ironman. I also thought about @lushyluc the person I was dedicating my first Ironman to and wished that she could be there in person to share the experience with me and see how many people whose lives she had touched and inspired also. It was around this time when I was reflecting a little that a very determined runner past me keeping a steady pace and looking supremely confident with a big smile on his face. It was none other than @bigbradbrown whom I had watched complete his first Ironman the previous year and had provided me with some inspiration and words to take on the Ironman challenge also. It was cool to see him and we shared a few words before I wished him well and he headed off.
It was at the back of the University that I found my legs and I started running again. It wasn’t long until I caught Sascha who was now shuffling along and in a great deal of pain. I felt bad and stopped and decided to keep him company to the finish. I tried some lame jokes and motivational words which brought a smile and we kept moving forwards. We started discussing the red carpet and what we were going to do when we hit it. Sascha was keen to run the whole way whilst I said that I was determined to take it slow and enjoy the vibe and high 5 as many people as I could. We were now less than a kilometre away and we could clearly hear the music and voices of the MCs welcoming each person home that crossed the line. Sascha looked at me smiled and then said “Scott I’m feeling better now go and enjoy your moment I’ll be along soon”. We shook hands and slapped each other on the back and then I literally took off towards the finish.
Running in I took the time to wave and smile at the crowds that were still huddled together supporting. I clapped and high fived many of them and then finally made the turn into the finish straight. Before I made the turn I took my jacket off to proudly show off my @sunflowerfund kit as this day was for them as much as me. As I jogged through under the bridge I hit the red carpet and then I saw the Ironman finish arch ahead of me. It had been a long day and I stopped briefly in awe of everything going on around me and then just let go. I jogged from side to side of the finishing chute high fiving and applauding the spectators that had braved the weather to support family, friends and strangers also. As I got closer to the finish Ironman MC Liezel van der Westhuizen @liezelv (whom I had only chatted with on twitter) recognised the @sunflowerfund and looked at me with arms outstretched and with that beautiful smile of hers. It was a special moment to be able to meet in her person and during such a big moment for me and I ran over and gave her a bear hug. As I turned towards the finish I smiled broadly and then Liezel brought me to the finish line with the words I had waited for for 13 hours and 18 minutes.
Scott Tait you are an Ironman.
I turned around and before crossing the line I took one final look back towards the crowds, slapped my hand over my heart, pointed towards the @sunflowerfund kit I was representing and took one final moment to again applaud the crowds that were gathered for their amazing support.
All the frustration, pain and disappointment I had felt during the race was long gone and replaced with an overwhelming amount of happiness and satisfaction that I had achieved what I had set out to do.
I was finally an Ironman! Here is a short clip of my day out at Ironman South Africa.
So there ends my Ironman journey at least for this year and a big part of my Tri-ing for The Sunflower Fund initiative. I would like to pay special thanks to some special people that were there with me every step of the way. My beautiful wife @beanker for being my rock and providing the love, support and belief I needed to do an Ironman. To @lushyluc for providing me with inspiration to make the most of this challenge and that with a positive mind anything can be achieved and ultimately overcome. To my training partner Miranda Symons who shared her Ironman knowledge, experience and many countless hours if not days cycling around the peninsula and always made them entertaining.
Finally I would like to say thank you to all those people that sponsored me and supported my fundraising and awareness initiative for the @sunflowerfund. New Balance, Coral Wetsuits and Dykes van Heerden were companies that were generous in their support. New Balances multisport range certainly kept me comfortable and chafe free the whole day and I can highly recommend their products whilst Coral Wetsuits ‘Benguela’ triathlon wetsuit (as we named it) was fantastic for the swim leg.
NOTE: The 2012 Specsavers Ironman South Africa show premieres this evening (Tuesday 19th June) on Supersport 6 from 7:30pm. This is one show that you do not want to miss! Ironman South Africa TV Schedule here