I know a few of you are into triathlon, so here is my mega-long report from the weekend in South Africa:
I had thought that Chicago was called The Windy City, but upon my arrival in Port Elizabeth, a week before Ironman South Africa, according to my taxi driver, the US is not the only place with a location with that nick-name. It started to sink in that perhaps this wasn’t going to be the easy race which I had anticipated. A combination of a single loop swim course, the new 2 loop bike route very exposed along the coast, and the potential of the anticipated easterly wind would mean this would be a real test.
I was hoping to improve on my first Ironman outing which was in Zurich, Switzerland, in July 2013. That was generally regarded to have been a tough race with temperatures in the 40’s and relentless hills for a lot of the route, so I rather naively assumed that it would be relatively straightforward to go faster on my second attempt. Having missed my rather optimistic 10 hour target by over an hour, I was eager to make amends. I started working with a coach to try and increase my potential, and soon discovered that a lot of my previous bike training had been little more than pottering around. Following prescribed workouts and using power as a method for training and also measuring performance I started to see improvements. I could also tell that the training was having an effect as I would be in pain during most of the sessions! While I’m never going to be a good swimmer, I was also seeing some benefit from the different suggestions my coach was making, and gradually my speed and endurance was creeping up from pathetic to merely pedestrian. The major fly in the ointment was a significant move with work, relocating to a different part of Orissa, which had none of the training perks of Hyderabad. I had no pools within 2 hours drive, the roads were both of terrible quality and treacherous with thousands of homicidal iron ore trucks dominating the carriageways. I also had no training partner or groups to help with motivation. Solitary training for over 2 months in inhospitable conditions while staying full-time in a hotel with the dietary ramifications that this brings was certainly not the ideal lead-up to what I had set as my A race for 2014.
Considering all of this, I had significantly revised my expectations of what was realistic on race day. Gone was the tiny possibility of finishing high enough in my category to qualify for an entrance slot for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, and now I merely set my sights on finishing in a respectable time, regardless of how that compared to my 11:06 finish in Zurich. Despite the quality training I had put in several months earlier, I wasn’t feeling anywhere near as fit as I did the previous summer. I can generally tell how ready and fit I am prior to an event – my legs feel like they have a spring in them, however now they were feeling sluggish by comparison.
Listless legs weren’t going to be my only concern – some gentle riding around the area in the preceding days highlighted another issue – wind. Generally for triathlons I ride aerodynamic carbon wheels, with deep rims which reduce the drag. The downside of these is that they are more affected by cross-winds. The lighter you are, the more this can be a problem, but I actually quite enjoy being blown around while riding – it makes the whole experience more interesting! Being a mountain biker at heart, when things get loose or twisty, I start having fun, which is often the opposite of the typical triathlete. Certainly when racing the Abu Dhabi International in 2013 while riding out along the corniche towards the formula one stadium and back, a lot of folk didn’t seem to be enjoying the experience a huge amount, while I found it was a great way to keep entertained. I’m not sure what was different in Port Elizabeth, but I was encountering another wheel/wind related issue, that of occasional horrible front-wheel oscillations. These would mainly be on a fast downhill section, and when riding in excess of 50 kph, one of the last things you want is a tank-slapper (a motorcycling term where the handlebars slap the side of the petrol tank). On a few occasions I was eyeing up the grass verge as somewhere soft to bail out, it being more forgiving than tarmac. The other issue with these wobbles is that one of the few ways to stop them is to slow down, however the very act of braking generally exacerbates the problem. The prospect of trying to race 180km on a bike which apparently wanted to throw me off at frequent intervals was not hugely appealing! Fortunately for both Sunil and I (who was in the same situation), we were able to rent some slightly shallower carbon wheels for the race. These proved to be money very well spent, but prior to organising these the uncertainty at the back of the mind wasn’t great.
Given that my total swim training in the preceding 2 months was basically 2 low-key Olympic distance triathlon races in India, I wasn’t exactly relishing the prospect of a 3.8km choppy ocean swim. In training I would be aiming to swim at least 2km per session, 3-4 times a week. This would total about 48km of swimming, and should have made sure I was all set. What I had actually achieved was 4km, barely scratching the surface of what I should have been doing. With my hotel room being right on the coast overlooking the ocean, there was no escaping what awaited. While my previous triathlons had been an even split between salt and fresh water, I am a much bigger fan of fresh water. While in theory salt water is faster to swim in, given the extra buoyancy, the fact that it tastes horrible when you inevitably drink some while breathing, I would take a slower pace any day. Add in the fact that lakes are generally a lot calmer than the sea, the swim leg wasn’t going to be my favourite section. This was reinforced during the 2 practice swims in the preceding days before the race. While the water wasn’t too cold with a wetsuit on, the swell and chop didn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience.
At least the run shouldn’t have been too much of a problem – in Orissa at least I can run without any issues, albeit without any company or support. The run route was a 3 loop affair about half it up and down the coast, looping inland up a gradual incline through the university. Not hugely inspiring, but should lend itself to good crowd support for a significant part.
With typical pre-race nerves and anxiety about the swim and bike, when race day arrived I could probably count the hours of sleep I had managed on one hand. I don’t function well on much less than a regular 8 hours, so this wasn’t exactly the ideal start I had hoped for. There was no putting off the inevitable though, so I attempted to eat a bit of breakfast, filled my fluid and nutrition bike bottles and Sunil and I headed off to transition for last-minute checks. It was good that we arrived in plenty of time as my training partner needed some of this to fix an inexplicable overnight puncture which meant that he had worked up a good sweat in his wetsuit even before the race started.
Soon enough we were lined up on the beach waiting for the start. The professionals would be starting at 6:30am followed by the majority of the men at 6:40 wearing red swim caps. The women and the oldest and youngest male age groups would be starting at 7am wearing green swim caps. My goal for the swim was to try not to finish behind too many of the folk who were starting 20 minutes behind me, but as the fastest swimmers would be finishing in well under an hour, and I was most likely looking at closer to 90 minutes, I knew that would be a challenge. When the gun fired, I was in no rush to dash into the sea and join in the melee with everyone else. There is no point in me being in front of faster swimmers who will inevitably swim over me as soon as the race gets going. Finding some clear water and pottering along at my own pace had served me well in Zurich and it was the same tactic I was going to employ here. The weather was kind – while the easterly wind was forecast, it was supposed to develop during the day, with a relatively calm start. There was very little swell or chop, and while I can’t say the water was pancake flat, it could have been much worse. I plodded along, aiming to swim in as straight a line as possible, as there is no point in swimming fast if you’re going the wrong way. The first red buoy was about 300m from the shore, at which point we turned left and headed parallel to the coast. Yellow intermediate buoys would then help guide us to the next corner some 1500m later. These also help to provide mental goals for someone as weak in the water as I am – with a 500m gap between them I could expect to take about 10 minutes to reach the next. 10 minutes is a manageable length of time to do something which you don’t necessarily excel at or enjoy, so it was a case of one step at a time. 2 red buoys marked the half-way point and then it was a similar story working your way back towards the start. Hitting the lap button my on Garmin when exiting the beach I was pleased to have completed the swim in just under 1 hour 23 minutes. Considering it was probably close to 2 minutes between the starting gun and getting swimming, and then a little time running up the beach, this was better than I had expected.
After grabbing my first transition bag from the rack, the wetsuit came off quickly, the bike helmet went on, and I was running around to grab my bike and get going on what would be the longest part of the day. No mishaps while jumping bare-foot onto the bike and getting my feet into my shoes, time to get some fluids in and concentrate on the wattage which my bike computer was displaying. Power is the most efficient way of pacing yourself for an event such as an Ironman, especially when you need to make sure that you finish with relatively fresh legs, otherwise you’ll fall apart on the run afterwards. My coach had recommended that I aim for between 170-175 watts, which may seem very low for those who use power meters, but I would have to sustain this for between 5 ½ and 6 hours, then run a marathon immediately afterwards. The bike course headed up the coast for a few kilometres, then turned inland up a pretty long gradual incline, a perfect gentle start to get the legs moving. While it wasn’t immediately obvious, this climb was assisted with a tail-wind, which was apparent as soon as the climb ended and we had one of the few sections of fast road. It was here that I had encountered horrible wobbles just days before, so I was keen to see how a change of wheels would affect the ride. I was delighted that the bike was rock-solid, no twitching at all, so I could concentrate on pedalling rather than just hanging on for dear life and not crashing. The bike was perfect all day with no mechanical issues or punctures. The only minor annoyance towards the start of the ride being my spare tubular tyre sliding down from where I had zip-tied it on to dangle over my seat-mounted bottle cage making it more difficult to access. I found a simple alternative to this though, and just tucked fresh bottles into the top of my tri-suit. I might have looked a little comical with a bottle shape sprouting from an armpit or two, but it was convenient.
The tail-wind assisted descent was over far too soon, and we turned right off the main road and up some climbs. None of them too long, but I was in my lowest gear grinding out my prescribed watts at a sensible cadence, so they were more than gradual inclines. While I may have blasted up them without much care on a training ride, this required a more considered and energy efficient strategy. At the far west of the bike course the route hits the ocean and heads east back towards the start. This undulating section of road right on the coast fully exposed to the wind was going to be the challenge. With the easterly wind picking up, I could see my average speed gradually dropping. There was no respite from the wind until the road turned north for the last few kilometres up to transition where the headwind had turned into a cross-wind. I had maintained an average power of 175 watts for the first lap, right on target, but I knew that expecting to maintain that for the 2nd lap would leave me pretty much spent by the end, so I backed off a fraction. I was drinking continuously and diligently taking my gels which I had decanted into my aero bottle, so I was confident that I was staying as hydrated and fuelled as possible, but there was no escape from the hills and wind. The wind seemed to have picked up a little by the time I was on the 2nd half of the 2nd lap, which corresponded with the forecast. Everyone had their head down trying to stay as aerodynamic as possible, to expend as little energy while battling the wind. My first lap was almost exactly 3 hours, the second about 10 minutes slower, and by the end my average power had dropped to 167 watts. I was now close to 20 minutes behind my Zurich pace, despite my swim being nearly 15 minutes faster, so it was becoming clear that improving on my personal best was going to be virtually impossible. Dropping to a lower gear and spinning the legs faster to loosen them up for the run in the final kilometre, and I could feel a few hints of cramp. In a previous race I had cramped up very badly the moment I took my feet out of my shoes while completing the bike leg. Instead of jumping off the bike and starting running, I was lying on the ground for nearly 10 minutes trying to reanimate my legs. The subsequent run was more of a hobble so I was keen to avoid a repeat performance.
Fortunately no real cramps materialised, and I was quickly slipping on my running shoes, cap, encouraging the volunteers to smother all exposed bits of skin with sun-cream, and off for the final part of my ordeal. Remarkably, I was feeling relatively fresh, and started running at a comfortable 4:30m/km pace, which were I able to sustain would result in a marathon time of around 3 hours 10 minutes. Although unlikely, at this rate there was a remote chance that I could improve on my Zurich time. Unfortunately a few kilometres later I could tell that I couldn’t keep running at that speed, and if I did it wouldn’t be too long before I blew up and would be relegated to a slow jog. Crowd support along the route was fantastic and it wasn’t long before I spotted a group of friends from the hotel who were cheering loudly and boosted morale considerably. The aid stations along the route were also well spaced and well stocked. While I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Gu gels, having previously described them as like eating a flavoured desiccated slug, I knew that I needed to keep taking in calories to avoid fading badly. Every 2km I would douse myself with water and drink a couple of cups of electrolyte, and every 4km I would do the same but also chew down a gel with some water. By around the half-way point my pace had slowed to around 5m/km and it was starting to feel like hard work. Mentally though, it didn’t seem to be as much of a challenge as the run in Switzerland, where I had gone through some very low points. Once on the last lap the end was in sight, and although my cheering friends weren’t impressed with the grimace I gave them instead of the smile as on previous laps, I knew that I could finish. Around the university loop I spotted several runners who were sat on the ground looking far from their best form, and I’m sure the majority of these would have been receiving and DNF. Although the pain and tiredness were pretty tangible, with only a few kilometres to go it was time to put this to the back of my mind and about 3 hours 53 minutes after starting the run, the finishing carpet had arrived.
While 11 hours 35 minutes wasn’t exactly the finish time I had in mind before the start, I was glad to have finished. While having a quick massage it was pointed out that I was very cold, something which I hadn’t realised up until then. Wrapped in a foil blanket I managed to make it back to my hotel which was fortunately only a few hundred metres away from transition. After spending about an hour in a hot bath which was continually being topped up with scalding water and drinking hot chocolate, I was feeling slightly more alive. Putting on all of the warm clothes which I had brought with me, which didn’t actually amount to very much, I went to find Sunil in the finish area.
Comparing the results from Zurich and South Africa, despite being almost half an hour slower, this doesn’t quite tell the whole story. In Switzerland I finished 77th in my age group, while now I had come 32nd. My progression in Zurich was 253rd in the swim, 133rd after the bike and then 77th after the run. Port Elizabeth showed that I was similar in the swim being 224th then rising to 68th after the bike and an eventual finish of 32nd after the run. During the course of the race I had consumed I think 24 gels – 2 before the swim, 14 on the bike, and around 8 on the run, a total calorie intake of around 2300. Looking at the approximate calorie expenditure though, this was about a quarter of what I had burned, leaving a deficit of about 3 normal days’ worth of eating!