Thrill of a lifetime!

It was late July last year, when I was sent on an international assignment from Switzerland to Melbourne until the end of April. It did not take me long to realize what a fantastic sports infrastructure this city has, so why not take full advantage of it.

I met with Ollie in mid-November to discuss the sanity of trying to go for an Ironman (my triathlon experience was limited to one sprint event in July, but I had participated in a number of marathons). I must admit being somewhat skeptical when he didn’t see an issue with me being a very, very poor swimmer.  Turned out Ollie was completely correct!

Looking for the “right” Ironman was the next challenge. The Spec Saver IM South Africa was the closest to the end of April deadline with spots still available. Therefore, I signed up and started training. In a team effort necessary for an  IM, the coach, physio, masseur and bike mechanic were working on getting me race ready.

On April 3, a week before the race, I flew to Port Elizabeth. A week should be enough time to get over jet lag and adjust to the time difference of eight hours. Upon arrival, I made sure that every day began at 4am, the time to eventually get up on race day.

Port Elizabeth is known as the “Friendly City” and deservedly so. Luckily, I had kept the e-mail address of a triathlete living in PE who I had met many years ago. This was a connection proving invaluable. He provided me with the names of a competent bike mechanic, chiropractor, and physio so that all appointments could be lined up before arrival. The bike mechanic offered to meet at the airport on Sunday evening to pick up the bike suitcase and get the bike ready for Monday morning!

My local triathlete friend, a four times IM South Africa veteran, had offered to drive me along the course on Monday late afternoon. I learnt where to hold back, where the highest point will be, which ones the dangerous curves were, where the aid stations and personal support areas were and much more. The drawback, it took so long to ride the 60k loop that for the first time I became almost too respectful  of the enormity of the task ahead: On Sunday, this loop had to be conquered three times!

Rather than staying in PE and worrying about the Ironman for the rest of the week, I took off Tuesday morning for a game reserve only to return on Friday morning to the city. Two lengthy game drives a day, searching for the Big Five, ensured distraction from the IM.

Back in PE on Friday, anxiety levels increased and one more lesson was learnt: the days before an IM are much busier than before a marathon. Between registration, organized swim training, race briefing, bike check-in etc, I was shuttling back and forth between the hotel and other venues. At a marathon, one registers, goes back to the hotel, puts up his feet and waits. The IM keeps one busy most of Friday and Saturday.

One thing all athletes are anxious to know ahead of the start of IM South Africa: which way will the wind blow on race day. There are basically two options. “West is Best” or the “Beasterly Easterly” can rule. While a Westerly makes for calm waters and a fast race overall, in an Easterly it’s all about the last man standing. The latter brings warmer temperatures, choppy waters, and lots of bluebottles. Luckily, by the time the official swim training took place on Saturday morning, there was only a slight Easterly left, so the swim was quite pleasant.

Saturday afternoon, after the race briefing, bike check-in took place. As was true throughout the weekend, everything was perfectly organized. Finally, around 5.30pm, time had come to go back to the hotel, put up the feet, visualize race day, and go to sleep early.

Race day was here! After almost six months of training, the moment of truth had come. 4am getting up, 4.30am light breakfast with an energy bar, toast and honey, and shortly before 6am I was heading to the start. There, the drink bottles were attached to the bike, a few last items added to the transition bag, and, after getting ready for the first leg, the swim bag was handed in. As we stood at the start, we figured out where the wind was blowing from. Yes, it was still an Easterly, but an even lighter one than on Saturday and the water was quite calm. In the afternoon, the wind would even turn to a Westerly, but this was too late to really profit from during the bike leg.

The race had its first climax at 7am. Almost 2000 athletes ran into the water encouraged by the cheers of a huge crowd of supporters and the race announcer shouting into the microphone. With so much adrenaline flowing, one had to be careful not to overexert himself on the first leg already.

The athletes had to swim two laps. Sighting was difficult at first, because the buoys could not be seen easily on the two long stretches. It became considerably easier during the second lap when I could target specific buildings on the horizon. Profiting from the buoyancy of the wetsuit, I was very pleased with my swim leg heading into transition. The bike course in Port Elizabeth gradually climbs up to an altitude of about 180m during the first 20k with a pleasant almost 40k back to the start. I quickly settled in to a nice pace, a bit slower than initially hoped for, but the temperatures were rising and I did not want to exert myself. In hindsight, I was too respectful of the distance. The road surface was a bit rough, which caused a number of bottles (including one of mine) to fall out from the holders of the athletes. The nutrition plan worked very well relying heavily on the Optimizer drinks and much less on the gels than in training. I felt it was an easier, more comfortable, and more filling solution.  During the three 60k laps, I was able to enjoy the crowd support and still felt quite strong heading into the second transition. In the meantime, the temperatures had reached their highest on a sunny cloudless day and knowing how poorly I perform in the heat, I decided right away to run / walk and wait until the sun was setting to go faster. The first half of the marathon was easy with the outstanding crowd really carrying the athletes. Towards the end of the second of the three 14k laps, the sun was setting and temperatures were dropping. This allowed me to pick up the pace and end the run with negative splits. Doing the run / walk, walking focused at a fast pace, worked well (and relieved me of potentially several days of sore legs to come). Thanks to the run split, I just made it into the first half of my age group.

Coming back to the road along the ocean on the final lap was tremendous. A last boost of moral and energy towards the finish, running faster than any other time that day, and finally there it was when crossing the finish line: YOU ARE AN IRONMAN! That’s what all the hard work was for and it compensated for everything. Another of what seemed to be hundreds of friendly volunteers greeted me, congratulated me, ensured  I got the medal and the finisher T-shirt, a picture was taken, he brought me  to the massage tent, etc.

In summary, Port Elizabeth was a fantastic first Ironman with huge crowds of spectators cheering the athletes on. Ollie and the Tri-Alliance team did a wonderful job preparing me for this event. I was in great shape, had no problems physically or mentally during the event, recovered quickly and fully motivated to do it again. So, thank you for the thrill of a lifetime!

Should you ever consider racing Port Elizabeth, here are a few pointers based on my experience:

  • Fly a week before the event. It is necessary to adjust to the time zone and it will ensure that your bike will be there on time (there was a large number of athletes who were still searching for their bikes on Saturday!)
  • Line up bike mechanic and any other appointments you need ahead of arrival
  • If you have the choice of buying a ticket from several airlines, take the one with the most generous baggage allowance. For example a Qantas flight might be code shared with British Airways. Buying the BA ticket can save you hundreds of dollars in excess baggage fees!

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