It’s been just under a month since I’ve raced Ironman 70.3 in Dubai on 5 March 2022, and I think I’ve recovered enough to be able to write a fairly objective race report.
The race was a roller coaster of a ride for me, as races of this nature often are, but in a very unexpected way. I have heard only great things about this race before; it’s a flat and fast course, the water is warm, the merchandise is great, the food is great, etc, etc. There was so much uncertainty about whether the race would take place, and then even after I had entered I wasn’t certain if I would make it there because SA was still red-listed from Dubai and if it stayed that way I would not be allowed in. A few weeks before the race Dubai’s borders were opened up again, and 2 days before I traveled they even dropped the requirement of a PCR test to enter. Things were looking up. I felt fit and ready too, so the plan was to go out hard and see how far I can push myself and get a personal best (PB) over the 70.3 distance.
Because of the Covid pandemic, certain things are different with Ironman races now. Most notably, there is no longer a change tent and wetsuit strippers, the race briefing is online, and there are no mass participant dinners. Those are some of the best parts of the race weekend, but the reasons for omission are understandable, so we make the best of the remaining aspects.
The story of my rental bike: I had decided to rent a bike instead of traveling with my bike, and my bike rental was confirmed weeks before the race. It was a Scott Foil RC30, a beast of a machine … an aero bike with a carbon frame, Ultegra groupset, and disc brake wheels. The bike was made for speed, as the construction and every curve on the bike is optimised to be as efficient as possible as it cuts through the air. Because of the specs of this bike I decided to stop training with my tribars at home because I would not have tribars on the race. I would just ride in my drops and the additional speed that the bike would get me would be enough. When I received my bike, something seemed off and I couldn’t place it. I got a Scott bike and they did a great setup for me, but it wasn’t the bike that I ordered. They do reserve the right to swap bikes for a different bike of similar specs, so I thought that is what happened and thought nothing of it. However, the next day I realised that this was completely different specs from what I ordered. The size was the same and it was a Scott, but that was where the similarities ended. This one was an aluminium frame with a Sora groupset and normal wheels. So it was much heavier and not particularly aerodynamic. It was pretty much the same bike I had at home. When I approached the bike shop about it they could not do anything about it because all the other bikes were already out. I could see that they tried alternatives to see what they could do to give me a slight edge, but it was to no avail. It was an admin mixup on their system so what they had confirmed and what I ordered and assumed was confirmed were 2 completely different things. The bike felt OK though, and I had to accept that it was going to be up to me alone to find additional speed and not rely on my equipment. If I had known this I would have at least brought my tribars along. On a course like that it would make a major difference. But, bygones, it was time to hone in and focus on the race.
We all knew it would be hot on the race, but luckily it wasn’t unbearably hot yet in the days leading up to it. I froze my bottle of water and carb drink for the 1st section so that it could be as cold as possible by the time I start riding. The transition area was in a great location, right at the beach so we didn’t have to run far to from the swim exit to transition. The transition floor area was laid with artificial grass, which is quite luxurious as far as triathlons go. My bike was also quite close to the bike exit, so even though I had a longer run to get to it, I didn’t have as far to go to get to the mount line. For Ironman races, you rack your bike and your bike bag and run bag that holds what you need for those parts of the race the day before in the transition area.
It’s RACE DAY baby!
Race morning came and it was as exciting as ever. I had met a few South Africans there briefly in the days leading up to the race, and it was good to know there were so many of us racing. Finishing touches are allowed in transition on the morning, as you load your nutrition onto the bike and make sure everything is where it needs to be.
I did a short warmup swim at the side of the beach that was not being used, and headed off to the start chutes to make sure I get a decent starting position. It’s a rolling start with 4 athletes being released to start every 5 seconds. With almost 3,000 athletes, it can take close to an hour to get everyone into the water. I managed to get a good spot and started within 15 minutes of the 1st starters.
My swim was amazing. The water is nice and warm, and quite calm. I got into a good rhythm and the 1.9km swim went incredibly well. I did a swim PB and took a good few minutes off my previous 70.3 swim time. I could definitely feel my arm muscles taking strain, but with efficient breathing I was not getting super tired at all. With 46m 50sec for the swim, I was happy. Boom. Smashed it!
As a cherry on top, my cousin who was now living in a neighbouring Emirate had traveled through to Dubai and I saw her cheering in the front of the crowd as I came through the swim exit into transition.
Then it was time to transition out of my wetsuit and into helmet and bike shoes, apply sunscreen, quickly hydrate and snack, and do all the other prep for the bike. I started pushing hard right off the bat, but was also careful to try and not burn out too quickly. My drinks were still cold but thawed, so freezing my bottles worked out well.
The 1st aid station on the bike came at about 23km into the cycle. As I slowed down and stopped to get liquids, I felt the beginning of a calf cramp come in. I then decided to take a bottle of carbs at the aid station and toss my almost-empty bottle of water. I planned to get water at the next aid station. About 30km in, as we were entering the desert section, a headwind came up. Fighting into the headwind slowed me down considerably. This knocked my average speed, but because it was an out-and-back course I knew this meant I would have a tailwind on the return leg, which would give me a bit of a push on the rear. Any pace I was losing now could be made up later, I told myself. I could feel my cramp exacerbating now, but as long as I moved my legs it was ok. So I just had to keep moving and not stop or coast. I knew I would need to top up on electrolytes at the next aid station at around 50km, so prepared to pop a tablet into a water bottle as soon as I could get water. I also took in a GU gel a few kilometres before the water point with the intention of washing it down with water at the aid station.
And then the unthinkable happened…
On arriving at the aid station, having battled a headwind in the desert for over an hour, now hot and thirsty, the unthinkable happened. The aid station DID NOT HAVE ANY WATER LEFT. This was a disaster. My sugar balance would now definitely be out because of the gels I was taking, and I couldn’t mix up my electrolytes. I took a carb drink again since that was all they had for us to drink. Almost half the field was still behind me, over 1000 athletes who would also not get water.
I pushed on to the next aid station. The tailwind did assist to push me from behind, so I managed to make up the time I had lost slowing down earlier. Relieved to get to the next aid station, I looked for water. Guess what…NO WATER THERE EITHER. I felt like throwing a tantrum. That wouldn’t help though, so sanity prevailed. I eyeballed a used bottle of water with about 100ml left in it, and made the volunteers give me that. As much of a health risk as that was, at this point I didn’t care. I popped an electrolyte tablet in there and headed off. The concentration was way out though, because it needs a lot more, but at least I could get something in and hope for the best. At the 4th (and last) aid station the same thing happened. NO WATER.
By now, 10km from the finish, I was on track for a massive PB on the bike as well… IF I could finish. My cramp was now so bad that I had no idea if my legs would carry me through. From my hips down to my feet every muscle was stiff and every pedal stroke was absolute agony, threatening to end my race prematurely. I was so severely dehydrated that there was no hope of recovering from it during the race, I had to just manage it as best I could. But I pushed on, because I was not going to give up on my own steam no matter how much pain I was in. If I don’t finish it must because I physically cannot go any further due to a actual catastrophic failure of sorts.
In the last few km, Hayley, a Saffer that I met the previous day (we were introduced through Whatsapp by a mutual friend) passed me and asked how it’s going. I told her I’m ok but suffering heavily with cramp. She asked if I have anything for it. Long story short, she slowed down to ride beside me for a minute and handed me her stash of cramp tablets. I had no idea what they were or what the dosage was, but I downed all of them (about 4) at once. WHAT A GODSEND!! I was so grateful for that. Selfless sportsmanship in a time of need is just so powerful and heartwarming.
As we re-entered the city, even though still in agony I felt relief as I knew it was now a flat roll back to the race village and into transition. And when I saw photographers, I forced myself to smile. Because PAIN is TEMPORARY, but PHOTOS are FOREVER. I made it to the bike finish and finished the 90km ride in 3hr 27min, which was also a PB and more than 30 minutes off my previous 70.3 ride time. Shot, glad that that leg was done.
I hobbled back into transition and got ready to run. Everyone in transition was desperately searching for water as we were now all parched. There was none and they told us to get some at the start of the run. I prepared myself mentally for a very tough run. The run is usually my speciality, but now I was severely dehydrated and my legs were absolutely smashed, and the temperatures were now soaring. All I wanted now was to be able to finish within cutoff, even if I had to walk the entire 21km or crawl over the finish line.
At the aid station 1km into the run, we eventually got water. I stopped and used some of the ice to ice my aching and cramping muscles and even packed some ice into my tights. I struggled to run even for short bursts and was feeling very sorry for myself, and going into a downward spiral emotionally. I also thought of the people tracking me back home and what they must be thinking that I am now moving so slowly.
The friendliness of the other runners and the camaraderie made me pull myself out of the spiral. One of the guys told me to just think of this as a catered 21km training run and enjoy it. What a champ! He was also struggling and so were pretty much all of us on the course.
A few kilometres in, 2 guys told me to run with them and take it easy. So I joined Khaled and Jesse’s bus. Khaled told us to slow down and just go easier, then we could run further and just walk the aid stations instead of walking when tired. We ended up running the rest of the run together and having a social chit chat about all sorts of things…where we are from (they were from Dubai and Phillippines), our race history, running, etc. It really was amazing and made my run not just bearable, but fun. My cramp also eased quite a bit during the course of the run, so Hayley’s magic tablets must’ve done its job.
Unfortunately, after 7km on the run course they ran out of water again. I was super upset at the prospect of running the next 14km in the middle of the day without water. Have we not been through enough!? One aid station after the next had no water. Spectators started bringing packs of bottled water for the participants to drink. In an Ironman race you are not allowed any external assistance, but surely this rule no longer counted in this situation. Much later, the organisers had water delivered to the aid stations again, so we got water towards the end at least.
In the last kilometre I looked at my overall time and run time, and decided to push with whatever I had left in order to at least go under 3hrs for the run. I managed to pull off a 2h 59m 23s, which I felt was a respectable time, especially under those conditions.
The red carpet
Once you step onto the red carpet of an Ironman race then, momentarily, none of the suffering you’ve endured in the previous hours matter. It’s the most amazing part of the race and it must be savoured. The announcer calls you by name, you are a finisher. Once again, because there are photographers around, you do your business to get the pic and then you can collapse after that.
After lying on my back for few minutes at the finish and finally managing to get myself up and dragged though the finish chutes, my cousin Faatimah met me there again. I was so incredibly grateful that she was there. Even though it was her 1st time at a triathlon and I didn’t even see her beforehand to brief her, she was a rockstar supporter and even sent pics home throughout the day to my sister back home. Most of all, I just needed a comforting shoulder to cry on at the finish line for a good release after a race that took so much out of me. We spent the rest of the day together at the race village and it was dark when we both eventually went home to our abodes.
After the race, I was in no hurry to switch my phone on. After what I saw as a dreadful performance, I expected messages enquiring about what on earth happened to me and what had gone so terribly wrong. I had allowed the (perceived) pressure to perform and to be fast on that course get to my head. On the contrary though, ALL the messages were that of support and congratulating me on an excellent performance. It warmed my heart and gave me the perspective that I needed. The truth is, any day finishing an Ironman 70.3 is an excellent performance. I still made it with more than an hour to spare until cutoff, which I needed to own and be proud of myself for. And in the bigger scheme of things, I was alive and healthy, lucky enough to travel to another country to do a race, and with a body strong enough to finish a tough triathlon and perform despite the challenges on the day, and despite not having the fast bike that I’d hoped for. Aptly, it is the biggest medal I’ve ever received, or ever seen for that matter!
Also, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I actually did do an overall PB. With an finish time of 7h 28min 03sec, it was 51 seconds faster than my previous 70.3 race. If you drop the seconds, I did exactly the same time. I guess you can’t fault me for consistency! LOL
To this day I still do not understand how a race with so much prestige, and where they knew exactly how many participants there were, could run out of water. There has been no explanation forthcoming, and despite numerous protests via multiple channels from the athletes, no acknowledgement from the race that there was even an issue. Various other things were disappointing that could be overlooked. There was no merchandise to buy, the location/link of the online race briefing was badly communicated, the finisher jackets did not fit (I got the smallest size that was available and I am drowning in it – it’s a big cut and a men’s fit), and the list goes on. All these things can be brushed off, but running out of water in a desert is unforgivable in my opinion. It is dangerous and you are playing with people’s lives. As athletes we act with honour and play by the rules, we pay the very expensive race entry fees, and we don’t ask for much except that the race organisers ensure our safety and deliver what was promised. I hope the organisers will be taken to task by Ironman and that this doesn’t happen again.
On a personal note, I am reminded again what is important when doing races like this. Often we focus on the clock and want to chase times, and we fail to see what the most important aspect of racing is: ENJOYMENT. I will never be racing to win or to podium, so why does times even matter? While it feels good to improve and push boundaries, in future I will put less pressure on myself to go fast and focus on enjoying the experience more. It took an agonising experience to realise it in practice, but I would happily sacrifice a little of speed for a little bit less pain on that race. But I am grateful for the experience and the growth it has afforded me.
Thank you to everyone who supported me in any way on this journey, including the incredible coaches and athletes I train with, my colleagues at work who support and encourage me, my peeps on the social networks, my friends and family who know what this journey demands and who hold space for me, and my friends and family who have little idea what it is about but relentlessly support me anyway. Even though I did not have the chance to reply to every message of well wishes on every channel, I read and internalised all of them and I am incredibly grateful.
Then it was time for holidaze
After the race I transitioned to full holiday mode and had the most amazing time in the Middle East. I was in Dubai for another week, went to Abu Dhabi for a few days, and then finished off the trip in Bahrain for the 2022 season opener of the Formula 1 Grand Prix. If you’ve read my recent blog post about what I recommend to overcome the mental health challenges that come with Ironman, you might have realised that the vacation was part of my recovery plan. My trip is documented in Insta-stories and you can find it in the highlight reels of my Instagram page.