This past Sunday I finished Ironman African Championship. It was supposed to be a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle, and 42km run. Instead, it ended up being a 800m swim, 180km cycle, and 42km run.
As we were on the beach and ready to start the swim, at the very last second the swim was delayed by 30min, and then later shortened to 800m. It was raining and there was lightning present. The delay was to allow the lightning system to pass, and the shortening was to mitigate the looming risk of it returning while we were in the water. I really wanted the race to have a full 3.8km swim, since I’m currently in the best swimming form of my life. Although I was disappointed, I knew it was the right decision, and I was very grateful that it wasn’t cancelled altogether.
I thought: OK… lemons! Let’s make some sweet lemonade.
My new plan was to just klap the swim and then decide how to handle the rest of the race on the cycle. I did the 800m swim in 18 minutes.
The weather conditions…
The day was very humid, with over 80% humidity. The swim finished in the rain, and the ride started in the rain. The far end of the bike course was crazy hot. The 12km climb up Heartbreak Hill at the start of the bike course was so misty that we couldn’t see the top of the hill or where the roads went. During the last 10km of the bike I got caught in a cloudburst and got soaked again, right down to my skin. My socks and feet were wet the entire race because they just never had a chance to get dry. I was very grateful that we didn’t get crazy gale force winds on the bike. The gale force winds came up the evening though, and it made the wind/rain combo harder during the 2nd half of the marathon. None of these weather conditions bothered me though, it was just something that I had to note and adjust to. I didn’t see the heat, the rain, or the humidity as good or bad. I just saw it as something that would determine how I handled myself in terms of fueling, riding, running, gear, etc. The only thing I was slightly worried about was the lightning that came along with that cloudburst on the bike. I wasn’t sure if it was safe to be out on a bike during lightning. I was a wet object on the highest point of this “structure”, pretty much a perfect conductor of electricity. And I thought, Oh my word, I didn’t have the risk of being electrocuted on my bike on my Ironman risk register!! 😂
Deciding on a strategy
During the ride I tinkered between trying the do the race to the best of my ability, or to take it easy and have a lekker day out. I decided that getting an extra 2hr margin (bcos of the short swim) was a gift from God/fate/the Universe, or whatever higher power you choose to believe in. And it’s very rude to refuse gifts. So I decided use this day to have an absolute blast and not rush a damn thing. I had planned my original swim and T1 times so that I would have at least 8.5hrs to do the ride and still make cutoff, so why not take all that time anyway? This was the last full Ironman that I planned on doing, and how special wouldn’t it be if I had an absolutely incredible day out! Also, I decided to try and do the exact same time (to the minute) that I did my first Ironman in, which was 15hrs 34min.
I stopped properly at the aid stations for fueling, I smiled at the cameras (when I saw them), I sat down properly on the pavement to eat my salty buttery baby potatoes, and almond butter and banana sandwich at Special Needs halfway through, and I even stopped once to explain the cutoff times to a fellow athlete who didn’t know there were cutoffs (I know, don’t ask!). I stopped because he was cramping and pushing his bike up a hill at the time. I initially just gave him some words of encouragement when passing him, but when he said “There are no cutoffs, right?” I knew this guy needed an intervention so I stopped and told him what they were.
Finding strength in solitude
There is a section on the far side of the bike course where it is a 20km stretch of open road with lush bush on either side. It is beautiful, but it can be a very lonely section. When I was riding there, I could only see one cyclist ahead of me in the distance, far away. I knew there were people behind me, but they were far away too, and nobody passed me. During that time, I thought about how amazing it is to be able to ride a bicycle on this awesome stretch of road with NO cars on it and having it all to ourselves, and to not have to worry about safety at all. I knew that even though I cannot see anyone, were were being looked after by the race and nobody was going to jump out from the bushes. There is no danger from anywhere and all I need to think of is riding my bike. I even saw a troupe of little vervet monkeys crossing the road and playing with each other. As an introvert, this feeling and situation of safe solitude on my bike in nature was heaven. But also, I knew then that I was in the right frame of mind because I didn’t have to switch perspective at all. The initial perspective I had was one of ease. I also knew that that section can be absolute torture if you happen to be in a mental downward spiral at the time.
I finished the 180km bike course in 8h15 having had an absolutely enjoyable ride. I pushed when I felt strong and eased off when I needed a break, and spent a lot of time head down in my tribars and just pedaling away. My legs felt good at the end and I felt ready for the marathon.
Transitioning to Run
Upon finishing the cycle I had almost 7hrs still until my target time, which would be a painstakingly slow marathon if I could pull it off. So I tried to have a 30min transition (the time you spend between cycle and run). But after changing, going to the portaloos, giving my legs a Arnica Ice rub-down, doing my afternoon prayers, and closing my eyes for 5 minutes to rest, I was on 25min transition time and couldn’t make myself stay any longer. It was cold, and I was wet, and I felt I had to keep moving, so I started the run.
I decided to take the run really easy as well and see how it pans out. I didn’t look at my pace or time, except for at the end of every 10.5km lap. I just did my 9min run/1min walk strategy and had a blast on the run too.
I dropped some moves for the spectators that gave us music (they go absolutely nuts when you show appreciation like that) and I stopped to chat to my supporter friends on the run when I saw them. I managed to do almost half the marathon while it was still light. As the darkness set in, so did the wind. Eventually, the rain poncho I was wearing became a sail and I changed to my windbreaker from Run Special Needs. I walked a lot more by then because it was getting harder with the wind, and I wanted to manage my legs to go the distance. Thankfully I didn’t get any cramping during the run. I expected to go deep into the pain cave during the run, but I didn’t have muscle pain at all. Must’ve been because I was running so slowly!
My feet were sore and towards the end of the ride I felt like I might have a blister from all the friction of wet skin against wet socks for so many hours. It didn’t feel like a blister on the run though, but my soles definitely felt the effect of the friction. Also, my feet were swelling so it pressed up against my laces and that wasn’t pleasant. When I tried to bend down to adjust it, I got that feeling where your legs tell you… JUST DON’T! Runners will know that feeling. LOL
The support on the run route is incredible! I was the only hijabi on the course (and the only one since I did it in 2019) so lots of Muslim people kind of adopted me and screamed for me like crazy as if I was their own. My friends from PE were there to support, some of my friends who did the 70.3 earlier that day came out during the night to support me, and there were even people from Cape Town running community who came to PE especially to support at Ironman.
At the final turnaround point with just 3km to go, I was at just about 15hrs race time, so I had over 30min to do the last 3km in order to reach my target. When I got to the finish straight, I was 4-5min early so I waited just before turning into the red carpet for the time to pass. Everyone was confused as to what I was doing, and cheered for me to go. Even the referee manning that point wondered why I was stopping there. I told him: I need to finish at exactly 15h34m race time and I’m 3 minutes early. Yeah I’m weird like that. He had the best laugh that he’d probably had the entire race 🤣
The red carpet
After waiting out my 3 minutes on the corner, I turned onto the red carpet. If I could moonwalk I would have moonwalked down the carpet! Clearly I’m a nerd and not a party animal so my moves are pretty amateur, but I celebrated the red carpet like the celebration that it is.
High 5’s to anyone with their hand out and an appreciation for all the cheers and support in the stands. I enjoyed every minute of the race and I’m proud of myself for not only finishing the actual race, but also for what I had to overcome to get there. And my mission that I set out in terms of finish time that morning had been accomplished. Finish time of 15hr 34min… just like in 2019.
So, if someone asks me what time I finish an Ironman in, the answer is simple. 15h34. How’s that for consistency? 😁
I am very happy with the execution of my race, as well as my decision to take it easy. I could have probably finished an hour earlier if I’d pushed, but what would be the point of that because with the shortened swim, the time is anyway not reflective of an actual 14h30 Ironman finish. I was nowhere near winning my age-group or gunning for a Kona spot, so I really don’t see the point of having raced at my limit and run the risk of being in lots and lots of pain on the run. I will manage the hurtbox when I need to, but it was really nice to not have had to 😊
A shocking realisation
It took me almost 24hrs after I finished to realise the full magnitude of what I had actually done. Don’t get me wrong…doing it and finishing it was always going to be a big deal for me, especially after being at my lowest point in 2 decades both physically and mentally only 7-8 months ago. At the time, even just running a half marathon seemed like something I might never be able to do again…never mind running a full marathon after an ocean swim and cycling 180km. Training for Ironman was part of my healing, and truly finding myself again.
What I didn’t realise, was what a bulletproof zone I was in for the whole of Sunday.
You see, I’m usually the one that struggles the most in my circle on these big races, and even in training. I’m not fast, but I can execute a training plan and a race plan with military precision, no matter what it entails and how much pain I am in. So, when I had a great day out on Sunday, I assumed everyone had a great day out. On speaking to people after, I realised that that was not the case.
The biggest realisation came on Monday night at the post-race dinner.
I spoke to someone who is a triathlon coach and asked her how the race went. She responded that it was super tough. She’s done 3 x full Ironman races so far and this was the hardest one of them all.
Then, after the prize-giving, they interviewed the race winners. Both winners (international pros) commented on how tough it was.
The female winner, Laura Philipp, is the fastest female Ironman athlete on the planet. She holds the Ironman World Championship record, as well as the run and bike records at the World Champs in Kona. She recorded the fastest time on debut for an athlete to date for the Iron-distance. And when interviewed, she said that the race on Sunday was the toughest conditions she has ever raced in. She said the heat and humidity was worse than they experience in Kona (and Kona is on a volcano!).
In a star-studded and super strong male field, Frenchman Leon Chevalier took the win on the day in the men’s race. In his interview, he said the course is one of the toughest he’s ever raced. He commented that there is no free speed anywhere on the course and you have to work for every inch of forward movement.
I was absolutely stunned by everything these people were saying! Did I really have an enjoyable race on a day that the best of the best were saying was incredibly hard? Granted that I was not racing at the intensity that they were, it was still a big deal because I usually have to be racing at intensity just to make cutoffs, especially on the bike leg. I actually needed some time after that to just be by myself and contemplate what I really accomplished the previous day.
Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that we actually did race in pretty appalling conditions. Every weather challenge imaginable was thrown at us. The course is insanely hard, but it is all I know so I didn’t even think of it that way. The bike course that I conquered in 2019 was harder than any of the previous years, and this year was the same course in reverse, which makes it even harder because a 12km downhill at the end was now a 12km climb at the start…that you do twice because the bike course is 2 loops. Until Leon mentioned it, I didn’t think that there was no free speed.
What I managed to do was to be completely in the zone, unlike any other time before that. It is a beautiful, beautiful feeling. You face the same challenges, but you face them with a different perspective, and that makes all the difference. You become unstoppable. Your mind is as powerful a tool as your body in endurance sports. It can be trained, and it will serve you well when it is. Although I did not fully recognise the state that I was in at the time, it did not come by chance. It is something that I have worked on intently during the past 6 weeks, and I am grateful that it has paid off. I will go into more detail about what I did in another post in future, and how you can also access some of those techniques.
Ironman African Championship is finally done, conquered. I hope that me doing it inspires you to also dream big and go for those dreams with everything you’ve got. If you can dream it, you can achieve it. So go after what you want and do not let anyone tell you that you can’t. The only limit is what you are prepared to do and how much work you are prepared to put into it.
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and who want you to win. In October when I was planning to race, I was planning to do the Ironman 70.3, and I still saw it as a challenge that I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull off. A dear friend convinced me to do the full Ironman instead. He knows what makes me tick and knew exactly what to say to convince me, although it wasn’t forceful at all. I was terrified, but decided to step up to it anyway. I wasn’t ready, but I had to grow into the person that would be ready. In the process, I have grown in ways that will stay with me forever, far beyond this race.
I am grateful for my village… my immediate family – parents and siblings – who accommodated all the time I spent away from home and supported the sacrifices I had to make to train, my extended family and friends who supported me in any way they could in this journey (even when it was just asking about it), my training partners who made my training more enjoyable with their company, my triathlon crew who provide all sorts of support and banter, my triathlon club ATC Multisport for being part of my journey since the very start and being rockstars at what they do, my physio who fixed all my niggles with her magic hands and needles, my massage therapist who maintained my muscles in the regular massage sessions (and entertained my training rambles while at it), my sports psychologist who helped me take control of my debilitating anxiety around my cycling abilities and gave me jedi mind skills, my cycling crew who helped make my long rides something to look forward to, everyone who has joined even a single run or ride or swim with me, everyone who has given me invaluable advice, everyone who stayed up to track me on race day until way past bedtime, everyone who came to the finish line to support me once their race was over even though you were tired, everyone who supported me at the race all day, everyone who prayed for me throughout the day, and to Phil Mosley and his MyProCoach team for a personalised training programme that absolutely knocked it out the park to get me ready to rock this race in peak condition.