Boom, boom, boom, boom… it wasn’t the alarm clock, it was the loud, scary sound of a foghorn, and that’s how my morning started on April 14th. It was eerie in Nelson Mandela Bay and there was a lot of fog about as we walked down to the beach. I couldn’t see the sea. Maybe that was a good thing.
I made my way into the transition area for the final checks and things that athletes do on race day morning. I wasn’t really sure what to do. I felt my bike tyres. They were still hard, which was a relief, since I didn’t have a clue what to do if they weren’t. I placed the finishing touches on my bike. My bottles and nutrition were in place, and I headed out of transition.
I don’t know why, but that was the moment that it hit me. I was scared. I was about to swim 3.8kms, cycle 180kms and run 42.2kms. I started to choke. One year ago I’d lined up for the Corporate Triathlon as part of a team with Monique at the same venue. It’s a race of just 10% of the distance of the full IronMan. I had been terrified to swim 380m in the sea, and I hadn’t been able to do the 4km run because I was still recovering from a stress fracture. Now I was hoping to 10x those distances.
I wandered back to where Scott had been waiting and whispered “I’m scared” in a feeble voice, with tears in my eyes. He didn’t notice. “You’ll be fine”, he said. Debbie, a VOB runner thankfully distracted me with a bit of pep talk. It was enough to remind me that this wasn’t the time to be scared. It was time to be brave. Today called for courage.
I said my good-byes and set off for the beach to do a little warm-up swim, and then line up with 1800 other crazy people at the start. I still couldn’t really see the sea because I was now behind a mass of athletes. I don’t have much confidence in my swimming ability, and I’m frightened of being kicked, punched or swum over, so I positioned myself about 90% towards the back and at the very left-hand side of the group. I was grateful to see a TriFit friend, Shawn at this point, and the idle chatter before the cannon fired eased the tension of waiting on the sand.
Thankfully, it was an easy swim to the first buoy because of where I’d positioned myself, but it was a bit chaotic once I got to the turning point. There was a lot of water safety around. A SUP was also making its way around the buoy with us; I hoped that no-one was in trouble. The water was churning up from the chopper above, and mixed with diesel fumes from the rubber ducks. It was mayhem, but I made it round the buoy, and was onto the long 700m swim to the 2nd buoy. The addition of yellow sighting buoys halfway through this stretch was fantastic. I didn’t bother with any landmark sightings (was it the middle or the end crane, I couldn’t remember anyway). As long as I timed my sighting with the peak of a swell, I could see the buoys easily. The fog had lifted.
Even though the conditions could be described as perfect, I swallowed a lot of water between the 3rd and 4th buoy. It felt like a washing machine. We were closer to shore there, and the swell was knocking us around. Thankfully I still avoided being kicked or punched, but my personal space was seriously compromised. It was also at this time that my hip-flexor started aching. Eventually I made it to the 4th buoy. I swam a bit wide and had to dodge some on-coming swimmers who were already on their 2nd loop. As I hit the beach, I glanced at my watch: 37mins. Thrilled. That was faster than I’d managed at 70.3.
Onto lap 2, which was a much easier swim, as we were nicely spread out now. At the 2nd buoy, I spotted the diver under the water, and gave him the “thumbs up” signal. He waved back. I was having fun now!
Then we hit the washing machine section again after buoy 3. I was tiring, and my leg was hurting, so I started looking for the positives. I gave thanks to the swimming gods that I hadn’t been kicked, that my goggles hadn’t leaked and that the water was warm.
Before long I was back on terra firma. 1hr15 when I looked at my watch. I was ecstatic!
Transition was painless, the volunteers were amazing. I had packed some extra comforts that I had foregone for 70.3: socks, gloves and sunblock (life-saver). I didn’t bother with the elastics trick for mounting the bike because I hadn’t practiced it since January, and this wasn’t the place to be making a spectacular mistake on the mounting line.
Now I was onto the bike, I was a bit ahead of schedule, so I took it easy up the first hill. I remembered the advice I had read from Alec Riddles blog, to treat the 1st lap as a warm-up, and I soaked up the vibe. The support on the route was amazing. The crowds were huge and extremely encouraging.
When I looked at first distance marker though, I did briefly contemplate how far I still had to ride. There is one board which has 3 distances on it, for each of the 3 laps. I saw: 10, 70, 130. I had only done 10, and still had a long way to go. I quickly banished that thought and concentrated on some other advice: think only about the current lap that you’re doing, or visualise the red carpet, but never think about the next lap or the next discipline.
At the top of the first hill, I grabbed a banana. I’d lost some of my futurelife breakfast in the sea, and decided that a top-up of solid food would be good. After Mount Pleasant, the kms started flying by, and it was easy. The bike was fast. I knew that there were going to be phenomenal times on the day. I was really enjoying myself now. I gave thanks to the cycling gods for sparing me every time I passed someone with a puncture. I chatted to other cyclists. I was even lucky enough to ride on-and-off for about 15kms with another TriFit friend, Mariana, and we chatted until she needed to stop for a loo break. During the 2nd lap, some of the pros came whizzing past, and gave us all a bit of reality check, as it suddenly felt like we were cycling in slow motion. It was an honour to share the road with them.
When I started the third lap, I didn’t recognise the road up to the first hill, and even had a moment wondering whether I’d taken the right turn. The pros were now on the run course, and the supporters from this stretch had mostly left to follow the main race. I do recall a man with an iron and ironing board at the side of the road though, he made me giggle. The volunteers at the aid stations, of course stayed for the full duration. They were always smiling, the water was always cold. The aid stations were like little oases.
Shortly after I passed the 150km mark, which was further than I’d ever cycled before, the mind games started. A strange squeaky rattle seemed to develop on my bike. I’d never heard the noise before. I panicked. This section of the course is very rough, everything was shaking. The squeaky rattle was really starting to worry me now. I worked out how many kms I thought I could run with my bike if something went wrong, because if anything happened to the bike, I didn’t have a hope of fixing it myself. I reckoned that I could do about 15kms and I still complete a marathon after that, so I counted down every km until there were only 15 left. I was in the “safe zone” now. Even if the bike fell apart, I think I could still have finished. Then I ticked off each km after that. Each one was one less that I would have to run if the bike collapsed, and I gave thanks to cycling gods each time. The wind had also picked up on this back section, and was blowing head-on. Out of respect to the 2012 participants, let me rather refer to it as a gentle breeze. However light it was, I could see my average speed dropping further and further, so I was overjoyed as soon as I turned onto the smooth tar at the beachfront with the “breeze” behind us, and the crowds cheering. I forgot about the rattle on my bike. It was probably nothing.
Now I had the small matter of completing a marathon. And I got scared again. I had a voice in my head asking “how the hell are you going to run a marathon after cycling 180kms?” but the rational voice replied: “this is what we’ve trained for”.
Approaching T2, I had a lovely dismount, and left my shoes cleated in. I handed over the bike, and then I tried to run, but my legs were lead. I grabbed my transition bag, and walked slowly to the tent. I took my time here, made my first mistake of the day trying to squeeze on some calf guards that I’d never used before. (I got carried away with all the compression gear being flashed around in PE, and decided two days before the race that I must run with calf guards.)
The volunteers in the tent were amazing again, and assisted with everything. One of them asked another lady in the tent where her cap was. She replied to say that she hadn’t packed one because she didn’t think she’d be finished cycling this early. We were all ahead of schedule, and I was worried about how badly we would pay for that on the run.
As I headed out the tent, I got the biggest surprise of the day. In the middle of transition, I saw Monique, Adele and Scott. I thought that this was an “athlete only” area, but their VIP cards had allowed them privileged access into this sacred ground at the heart of the IronMan. Wow, it gave me such a lift to see them. I was grinning again! I could have stayed there all day. I stole a kiss from Scott and then headed out to run. I was floating.
But not for long. Ouch! My quads started screaming at me as I left transition. I stopped to walk in the very first km, and I knew it was going to be an agonisingly long, tough afternoon. This called for a change in race strategy. I abandoned the plan to concentrate on one lap at a time, and treat the first as a warm-up. I could not comprehend 14kms at that stage. Instead, I broke it down into aid stations, which are 2kms apart. I convinced myself that I was capable of running 2kms. And nothing more. I didn’t think about the next 2kms until I got there. I did that about 20 times. I walked as much as I could justify. My definition of aid station got looser and looser as my resolve crumbled. Soon it included the litter zones after the water tables, and it definitely included walking if I saw anyone I knew.
After about 7-10kms, my quads had finally eased, and I was at least physically able to run comfortably again, but I was suffering in the heat. I hadn’t prepared either mentally or physically to be running this early in the afternoon. This was hard, this is where you dig deep and remember your “reason”. In Lawrence van Lingen’s step by step IronMan article, he’d said “It is very important to have a very good reason why you want to finish the race” and to “make sure you know why you are about to put your body and mind through hell”. I didn’t have a reason. I thought I was doing this for fun, but I wasn’t having fun anymore.
The first 3.5 hrs of the marathon were tough. Apparently I said never again. I don’t remember that. I do remember thinking “who in their right mind starts a marathon at this time of day?” I spared a thought for some of my triathlon friends who have only ever run a marathon as part of an IronMan. They don’t know what it’s like to start running on a cool, crisp morning, with fresh legs, and after a good night’s rest. They only know this warped version of the 42.2km distance.
I focussed on the next water table. I counted down every km. I tried to acknowledge every supporter who shouted my name. I nodded, smiled or waved, but when it was really tough, I just said “thank you” silently in my head. I celebrated the milestones, the 10k and 21k, and I silently cheered when I only had to see an aid station twice more, and then eventually only having to see it only once more. I was delighted every time I saw a friendly face at the side of the road, even if I didn’t always have the strength to show it. Thanks especially to Monique, Adele and my wonderful husband, Scott. Each time I saw you I floated pain-free for a while.
Eventually I made it to the final loop. The km board said: 1; 15; 29. At last, the bottom number applied to me! Not long thereafter, just after 6pm it got cooler, and I could run “comfortably” again. And so I ran, and ran, and ran, and I smiled again too, and I was having fun again. I skipped the last 2 water tables, and the precious walk breaks that I’d been treating myself to all afternoon. This was the strangest marathon I’d ever run. The first km was the hardest, and from there, it had got easier and easier. I heard the walkers talk about me as I ran past. “Heading home syndrome” they called it. I told them to come with me, but no-one did.
I was about 300m away when I heard the party on the finish line, and they announced that there was 1 minute left to the magical 12hour mark. I wasn’t going to make it, so as I rounded the final corner, I slowed down, I high-fived everyone with a hand in the air, zigzagging to both sides of the crowd, just like the pros do. I had missed a significant time goal by a minute, but I was nearly an hour ahead of my personal goal. My coach had done a superb job, and I was elated!
A lot of people will give you advice before your first IronMan. Only one piece of advice is consistent: take your time at the finish; walk the red carpet; savour the moment. I did all that. When I spotted the man I thought I’d been waiting to see all day (Paul Kaye), I grinned, and pointed at my race number, and I think I heard those magical words “You are an IronMan”, but it was a bit of blur. In my exhaustion, I hadn’t noticed the PK didn’t have the mic; it was Mike Finch who welcomed me home.
Just before the magnificent finishing arch, I saw the person that I’d really been waiting to see in the finishing straight. Scott was jumping up and down, cheering and shouting, and I ran over for the second kiss of the race, and an enormous hug and then I drifted under the arch, and it was all over.
I found my “reason” for doing IronMan on the finish line, and in the days that followed. The reason for the suffering, the early morning training and the many hours sacrificed. It’s for the incredible buzz at the finish line, for the endorphin high that lasts for days afterwards, and for the gratification of completing something that you didn’t think was possible. It’s for the look in your eyes when you say “well done”, with pride, and admiration. If you’ve done an IronMan before, you say it with compassion, and if you haven’t, you say it with a touch of awe.
Thank you for all the inspirational messages that I received before the race, for the support from amazing friends and strangers alike on race day. Thank you to those who screamed until they lost their voices at the side of the road, and for those who supported with devotion from afar. Thank you to everyone who said “well done”, because that is my reason.
“Tell me you love me, come back and haunt me,
Oh, and I rush to the start.
Running in circles, chasing our tails,
Coming back as we are.
Nobody said it was easy,
Oh, it’s such a shame for us to part,
Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard,
I’m going back to start.”
The Scientist. Coldplay