It’s been a little while since I’ve crossed the finish line of the Ironman African Championship. The experience to get to that point, changed my life as much as it changed my title. Crossing under that arch at the end of the red carpet is a rite of passage, an experience that confers upon those who have traveled that road…the title of IRONMAN. A 3.8km swim, a 180km cycle, and a 42.2km run. And it all has to be completed within the space of 16 hours and 45 minutes.   

This post is about my race day. It was surreal.

Due to the weather forecasts I knew the wind was going to be bad on the day, but I tried not to stress about it. The organisers shortened the swim by 1.6km, and I had mixed feelings about that. But once in the water I realized it was a good decision. The swell was so heavy that I struggled to see the buoys in the distance half the time. Waves were klapping me all over the place. It was tough. I was just so happy when the swim was done.

Exiting the water after a very rough swim

Onto the bike course and it was going very well at first. I was going faster than my planned speed without pushing too hard (received good advice not to push too hard on the 1st loop) but by the end of the first loop the wind had started to come up a lot. The 2nd loop was incredibly tough, both physically and mentally. The winds were now gale force and a headwind for large sections. Being towards the back of the field also meant that I often went many kilometers without seeing any other riders. I’m usually afraid of downhills but I now had to face my fears and capitalize on downhills and any tailwinds that I got to make up some speed. The last 50km were the worst. The hills, the headwinds, and even on the downhills felt like uphills because I struggled to reach decent speeds into the headwind. Pulled out everything in my armour to get through it. I got into those tribars, and literally just put my head down and pedaled away.

Cycling along the coastal section of the bike route

If there was  leg that was the easiest to throw the towel in during, it was the cycle leg. It took calling upon every ounce of strength I had in me to keep going and continue to suffer instead of just stopping and getting a comfortable lift to the finish in a sweep vehicle in such harsh conditions. But I thought of all the sacrifices I’d made to be there, of all the early mornings, of the 15-hr training weeks, of the constant fatigue, of not having a social life for months, of the people who were behind me all the way…my family and my friends and how I promised myself I would make them proud of me. I thought of Chanty whom I’d never met but in her death she inspired me to do Ironman because she had done it with cancer. I reminded myself that I had to do this for all hijabis who will come after me, because if I didn’t make it then people would always think that Muslim women have limits depending on the choices they make. I would be the first hijabi in the country to cross the full Ironman finish line. To me, being the first to achieve this was not about me being awesome or being cool, it was about being brave enough to pave the way for all those who would come after me. Because to follow a path that someone has paved before you is always easier than blazing that trail on your own, even if that path is fainter than we’d like.

I also thought of the team of Embarkies I trained with, absolute machines, and how I had to pull my weight for the team and make sure we all make it onto that red carpet. I made the bike cutoff with sufficient time to spare and my parents had by now flown in and arrived at the race village. It was great to see them cheering for me as I came into and out of transition.

The run was into the gale force headwind for 50% of the time which made it harder. But I tried to take advantage of the tailwind and the downhills. I had stomach cramps because of the cold water from the start of the run already, but tried to manage it as best I could. I really thought I would fade later in the marathon, but I actually didn’t. Felt pretty comfortable and even felt stronger later into it. The last lap was the best, I felt amazing and stopped to dance with the special needs volunteers for a minute as well (it made the highlights video and you can skip to 10:46 to see me). I think I was just so happy by then that I was almost done.

I took my time and walked most of the last kilometer, to make sure I have the carpet all to myself and to make sure I looked decent. Washed all the sweat and salt marks off my gear at the last aid station and made sure my gear was in place. Gotta look good for that finisher photo, that’s what it’s all about!!

And then the red carpet. WOW…it’s just magical. When the announcer calls your name, and you finally hear the words “Rogeema, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”, it makes every shred of the entire journey worthwhile. From the moment I decided to learn how to swim 5 years before, to every shred of blood, sweat, and tears shed up to that very moment on the red carpet.

It didn’t take me 15 hours, 34 minutes, and 26 seconds to become an Ironman. It took 5 YEARS!

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