The talk all week had been about wind strength and direction. Being there 10 days before meant I’d had a chance to swim, bike and run in all the different conditions Port Elizabeth was likely to throw at us. Two days before race day it seemed it was decided, the common easterly would blow making it a tough swim, but a more favourable bike. You have to be aware of these predictions but also clear your mind of them, race day conditions would only be known on race day.
At European champs last year I suffered extremely badly with stomach problems which has meant mentally I can’t eat breakfast before a race anymore. IM 70.3 Bahrain, IM 70.3 Dubai and Dubai Marathon were all started on 500ml of training mix. IM SA would be no different. I arrived at transition around 5:45am relaxed, calm and ready to rock.
Naturally, everyone looks nervous, everyone is watching everyone else. ‘He’s eating a gel now, maybe I should be’? ‘He’s got his wetsuit on already, Maybe I should’? ‘He’s going for a run!? Should I be’? If you have a clear pre race plan these shouldn’t be in your mind but you can see with so many people it is. At 6:15am I had just finished the training mix and could feel some hunger in my stomach, lucky I had packed a juice bar for such occasions, then some news that would change the day, Paul Kaye announces due to conditions the swim would be shortened. Hunger levels lowered.
For me this was actually good, it also seemed good for the few 100 athletes who cheered out loud and sent high fives. Swim is my weakest discipline so on one hand I was happy but the other, it took something away from the day. Not one of us would be racing a complete IRONMAN. Never the less, at least we were swimming. Wetsuit on, white bag to the drop zone, get lined up, 5 mins before start I had half a real fruit gel and off we go.
The swim was messy and far from the smooth waters of Dubai I’d been training in but luckily growing up in West Wales I surfed and sailed a lot and spent a lot of time in waves and big seas. This meant I wasn’t panicking and actually had some fun! I came out the water 6th in AG although at the time I was unaware. Isotonic gel through T1 and onto the bike. And no, I didn’t see a shark. (Sadly two people passed away in the swim, my deepest sympathies go to their families and the lifeguards who were working that day).
The bike course is notorious for its stunning views and savage roads. It’s about as bumpy as the swim and you need to ensure everything is tied down. Thanks to me being there 10 days before I knew this from training rides and was fine through the whole 180km. For others, it was clear they didn’t get the memo. You could have opened a bike shop with the bits found in the road.
I was using Secret Trainings ‘big energy’ which is a new product coming to market soon. It basically meant I just needed two bottles in my rear cages, the integrated hydration system on the Scott Plasma and a frame bottle with 6 gels and training mix in. Once the hydration system was emptied I would refill with one of the rear bottles and throw it. I’d grab water at every other feed station to pour over myself and drink a little to keep cool and limit dehydration. This worked very well, and I’m really excited for ‘Big energy’ to come to market for everyone else!
The wind did not make the bike an easy one, it was with us for some portion of the way out but you really felt it into your face on the way back. Racing with power you know when you are burning matches or not and it was clear on the way back I was burning a few too many so I accepted a slower time than planned and ensured I kept it to IM power. It was a two lap course (90km each) and I went through the two laps pretty much even paced with only a few mins down on the 2nd. Avg power was exactly where it needed to be, thanks to the hills and wind normalised was over by 10 Watts.
Dismounting into T2 was as horrible as you can imagine after riding 180km, but this one was particularly horrible as there was no carpet put down and not a smooth surface to run barefoot on either. The first 20 steps were agony and I really didn’t know how a marathon was going to be run.
I love transitions, I love that there is a system to them and a real pressure to get everything right. I have my system down to a fine art now and was out as fast as I came in having completely forgotten how bad my legs felt. Bottle of training mix with me for the first 20mins then I’d start the first of 9 gels every 20 min. I felt good on the run, relaxed and in control. I knew I was behind target time from the bike so made the decision to run slightly above planned race pace. This in hindsight was a mistake. The course was made up of 4 X 10.5km loops, with some inclines at each end. The run goes pretty much east to west meaning half a loop is with the wind, half is into it. The first two loops went smoothly and I went through half way confident of holding my splits. It was a turn into the wind on the 3rd loop my race went out the window, I got to the turn around and my legs had checked out, from here on out it’s survival mode.
I had a place goal for this race which would be determined through my time, you shouldn’t have a place goal as you can’t control the other athletes in the race so I estimated what time I would need for my goal place and that time became my goal. When you see that goal fading you have a big decision to make, keep going hard as you can to mitigate the damage or pull up and coast home. At Dubai 70.3 earlier in the year I had pulled up and enjoyed the immense support and community Dubai’s triathlon scene offers, at the time it was the right decision but if you do that too many times it becomes a habit, not one I planned on adopting. So I dug in, I went for the red bull and coke and prayed my legs would come back to me. As a coach you analyse everything and I knew it wouldn’t happen but as an athlete you have got to believe it can and so I went through patches of pushing hard for a time followed by 1 – 2 mins of internal arguments and dropping to almost a minute per km behind pace.
Suddenly you are on your final loop, people were dropping around me like flies and you just keep having to march on and enjoy the few seconds when you feel ok and power through the minutes you don’t. The crowd were amazing and one of the best supporting races I’ve witnessed.
Run time 3hrs 23mins, crossing the line for a total time of 9hrs 23mins. I don’t remember the finishing chute, nor the ‘you are an IRONMAN’ from the announcer, I hardly ever do. I last raced an IRONMAN in 2016 in the UK and remember absolutely nothing about the finish nor the hour I spent in the medical tent afterwards. This time, no medical tent needed just a good burger and 4 slices of pizza! Appetite is a good sign…
Post race is normally spent trying to find your supporters and friends, for me this was a solo race so I spent the following hour trying to fuel up enough for the 40min walk home. I also had a client racing so went out to see if I could spot him and support. No phone so no idea on results or news from the race. After eventually completing the 3km walk back to where I was staying which felt like a further marathon I checked in to see I’d finished 8th in AG and 101st overall. So, no Kona slot. A few hours to come to terms with everything and I headed back down to watch the other athletes fight on! If you’ve never witnessed the later hours of an IRONMAN race you need to, it’s absolutely epic!
A huge thanks to everyone who messaged me or even thought about me in support, none of it goes unnoticed and helps so much! Also a huge thanks to the InnerFight coaches & community for the daily motivation and support, Secret Training for the nutritional support and guidance, Wolfi’s bike shop for everything bike related, Rory at Icanswimfast for his guru swim knowledge and programming, Lizzie at DISC for keeping my body from falling apart and HRV4Training for the insights into my wellness and how I’m adapting to my training.
Thanks for reading.
By: Tom Walker, Endurance Coach