It has taken me 4 months to finish writing about my first half iron man. I don’t think I have a good excuse for it, I think I had just reached my limit on thinking about it. I have spent the last 4 months re-living the race and what I could have done differently, but here, I will just give you my account of race day. Some of it might be overshare, but it’ll give you a good idea of what it was like. After taking a challenge that looked from the outside like an incredibly crazy thing for me to even attempt, I owned it. I didn’t smash the time I wanted, but it’s done – finished! I’m alive, although I didn’t manage that part on my own (see below for details). I have, in hindsight, likened this race to childbirth. The pain isn’t as intense – obviously (men don’t go thinking you know what childbirth is like now) but it does leave you in awe of what your body is capable of. I’m pretty sure as the days pass and the memory of the pain fades, I will want to tackle the challenge again.
For those who haven’t done a triathlon (or Ironman specific event) you might find the details interesting, or at least informative. It might put you off wanting to try, but don’t let it! Race day details are seldom fun when you live it, but in hindsight I think most people are pleased they did it.
This is my day in review:
4.30am and the alarm signals the end of a difficult nights sleep. In a way, starting the day is welcome. After such a build up, I was looking forward to getting rid of the nerves. So up to breakfast we went. Getting food down your throat before 5 in the morning is always a challenge, but it has to be done. We sorted our gear the day before, putting ‘swim to bike’ transition gear in one bag, ‘bike to run’ gear in another, and ‘street wear’ in a separate bag that hangs at their respective ‘finish lines’. We took our bikes to the transition area and racked them the day before too, so all our gear was ready and waiting. The only thing left to do was arrange bottles of juice and make sure we had our nutrition sorted.
5.30am had us walking down the East London peer, on route to the transition area and start line. It is imperative to re-orientate yourself with where your bags hang and where your bike is racked. When your bike hangs amidst 2200 other bikes, best you know exactly where your number is so you don’t get lost during the race. You’d be surprised at how many people take the wrong things in their flustered state during transition. In a recent ironman event overseas one of the pro’s ended up running the 21km’s barefoot as she couldn’t find her shoes in transition! So, re-orientation, last minute touches and bottles done, it was time to head down to the beachfront with the 2200 other competitors to suit up for the swim.
6.30am by this point in the game, you should have a pretty good idea of how long it will take you to swim 1900 meters, so your start time is left up to you. If you start amongst swimmers of your speed, you will be swimming over fewer people and have fewer people swimming over you, both very advantageous if you’re not looking to drown. Pick the pen with your estimated finish time and wait for your start. Oh the nerves!
7.15am my time had come. Thankfully Shaun and I swim at similar speeds so we could wait in looming fear together, huddled like seals amongst the other wetsuit clad participants. All I could think was; don’t forget to put your goggles on! And then we were off. The water was magic, after training in the Atlantic in 11 degree water, East London’s Indian Ocean felt like a hot tub by comparison. Starting with people of a similar speed was the cherry on top, we swam as a pod instead of a school of piranhas, making it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The conditions were close to ideal and there was only a mild current. The fact that the swim was 300meters further than it was supposed to be didn’t bother me at all, I could have swam happily for hours, but the bike was waiting and out I had to come.
Swim time: 40:01 minutes – 1900m (in reality 2200m)
Transition time: 6:20 minutes
(This is how long it took me to run from the sea up to the transition area, find my ‘swim to bike’ bag, get out my wetsuit, into cycling gear, find my bike and run out of the transition area – you only mount the bike on the road)
I started the cycle feeling strong, and ahead of the crowds, which was a great feeling. I could find my pace on the road and start notching the hills off the race profile. There is no slipstreaming allowed in triathlon so it doesn’t matter where you begin. The 90km cycle is gruelling, you have the same amount of climbing in the first 45km’s as you have in the whole Cape Town Argus, it is no walk in the park. 10km’s in and my stomach was protesting, I could feel it was full of air but I was far more focused on climbing the hills than I was on trying to burp the air out. Whether this would have helped or not – I don’t know, but what I thought would pass only got worse the further I went. By the 45km turn around point I was so sore and so emotional that when somebody shouted my name and some words of encouragement, I dissolved into a whimpering mess, trying to stifle my sobbing so I didn’t attract the attention of the race marshals who were told to pull anyone who looked like they weren’t coping off the course. At this point I reminded myself that I was half way through the most gruelling part and all I have to do is make it back to transition and I can walk the run if I needed to. Getting back to base was harder than you would think given that we’d done the climbing on the way out, but East London has a howler of a wind, and it blows right into your face on your return. All you can do is grit your teeth and sink as low as you can onto your bike to minimise your wind resistance. I drank my fluids and I forced my granola bars down my throat, keeping to our race plan of when to eat, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I would be thankful for this later. I was pleased as punch when I rode along the East London pier towards transition, all I wanted to do was get my running shoes on and hit that last leg. This was undoubtedly a mind game and mine was working over time.
Bike time: 3:29:43 hrs – 90km
Transition time: 5:12 minutes
(This is the time from hopping off your bike, handing it over to get racked, running to find your ‘bike to run’ gear, getting out of your cycling gear, getting your shoes on and running out of transition)
It was at this point that I was hoping for a miracle. My stomach still wasn’t happy and I was hoping that standing up straight would help straighten things out… It was wishful thinking. My legs were feeling ok, I had juice in them at least, but I couldn’t put any juice in my tummy. Without being able to top up the tank I knew my legs would eventually give in, but I just couldn’t do it. I grabbed some water from the first water table and after taking a sip I had to walk for a few minutes to prevent it coming out again. This turned out to be the routine for the race. I tried periodically to get some fluids in because the temperature was around 34 degrees and I knew it was crucial, but I had more luck with squeezing the water soaked sponges over my head and drenching myself to bring my body temperature down. I think the volume of fluid I took in on the cycle was my saving grace. I put my head down and thought of why I was doing this race, but when you are that tired most thoughts are random and fleeting, leaving you fixating on things like peoples shoe colour and how many bands they have on their wrist (you get a band for each lap you do). All I wanted to do was get to the top of the hill and score my second band, I knew once I had it I would be home free. Well, not quite home free; I still had 5km’s to get back to the finish, but that’s nothing at the end of a race this long. I would have crawled it if I had to; it’s amazing what your body can accomplish when you put your mind to it.
Run time: 2:18:17 hrs – 21km
As I made my way over the finish line I couldn’t have been more relieved. It was without a doubt the hardest race I have ever done. I was in more physical discomfort than I have ever been in a race, and not from sore muscles or tired limbs. I mean they were tired, make no mistake, but whatever had gone on with my stomach was beyond anything I could have prepared for. It’s incredible how as soon as you don’t have to carry on, your body seems to loose the ability to keep itself together. Suddenly I couldn’t take another step. I literally collapsed in a heap. I sat that way, not getting up for food, or looking for Shaun, until my body suddenly screamed ‘BATHROOM’ at full volume. Apparently when your body is chronically dehydrated, it is unable to absorb fluids or food, and your stomach actually rejects it. It comes out either end with large amounts of gusto, leaving you shaking uncontrollably, and largely unable to move.
Thankfully a good Samaritan was on hand to call the paramedics and alert Shaun to where I was. I was hooked up to a drip and rolled off on a stretcher to the medical tent, where I had to have 2 bags of fluid injected intravenously, and lie there until I stopped shaking. When I finally managed to accomplish this, I had missed all the festivities and largely ruined the excitement of the end of one of our biggest races. I was still suffering the effects of dehydration and my stomach felt battered and bruised and full of air, leaving me with little to no appetite and feeling very sorry for myself. After all the excitement and all the training, to have been thrown off my game by my stomach was rather depressing.
Shaun obviously had an ordeal waiting for me outside the medical tent while I recovered from my 60/40 blood pressure (not for the first time), and he had some stern words for me on taking care of my body and not carrying on when I am clearly in no condition to. It’s hard to accept that sometimes there are times when no matter how hard you have trained, and no matter how much you want something, it’s better to take care of yourself than to almost die reaching your goal. A bit melancholy, but true none the less.
I have no regrets, but that’s because I made it out alive. In hindsight, I should have stopped when I realised I couldn’t take in any fluids, especially on such a hot day. It was one hell of a race, but I am so glad I can say that I have done it. I have opened a door I never expected to open, one where you glimpse exactly what your body is capable of and what your mind is capable of overcoming. I’ve often wondered just how a person gets through big, physically challenging events, now I’ve gleaned a little more understanding, and it’s addictive!
Friends and family have asked, despite everything, will there be more? There really is only one answer …most certainly! Hopefully with a little more finesse.