Written in the 2 days following the race, but posted 2 months late…here’s the IRONMAN SOUTH AFRICA race report – enjoy!!
I arrived to South Africa 10 days before the Ironman, landing in Cape Town and meeting up with my friend Meredith for a little pre-race adventure. She was fantastic to understand the integration of my taper routine into our trip, and so I ended up feeling fantastic when arriving to Port Elizabeth (race city) on the Thursday before the race. The last 2 nights were torrid affairs, however, as I kept mulling over in my head everything that could go right, vs. everything else that could go wrong. The tumult, looking back, was the massive uncertainty that I still held around 2 major issues: (1) will my attempt at indoor training translate to the outdoors, and (2) not if, but when my stabilizers (primarily IT bands) would lock up on race day.
The evening before the race we were out to dinner and I ended up in a long chat with a German pro about training, and especially training indoors. He shared how he and 2 other Germans had competed in the Abu Dhabi tri two months before, and how difficult it was given that they had to train 90% indoors leading up to the race. He told me all about how long rides inside don’t translate to the outdoors, how the treadmill is a moot point when it comes to matching the strain of running on outdoor pavement after the bike leg, and how stabilizing muscles get murdered in the transition from the trainer and tread to outdoor running and biking. Well damn, that didn’t help.
But despite the nerves of doubt, I remained resolute in a finish, no matter how painful or slow. That allowed me to take the day in stride…albeit a rather slow stride.
For the last few pre-race workouts, I decided to take some extra rest and not push it. As much as I wanted to calm the swim nerves around not having completed this distance for over a year, I decided that it would be smarter to “save it for race day”, knowing from past experience that my shoulders take a long time to recover from long swims and that 1 week prior to the event wasn’t really going to bring me any extra endurance – I’d have to swim, bike and run with what I had developed over the last few months. Being outside, though, I just couldn’t fully resist, so I took 3 or 4 practice swims of around 20-30 minutes under the excuses of practicing technique and getting comfortable in the wetsuit – all systems go, and no shoulder issues. On the bike, I took a 2-hour ride the weekend before the event with some nice climbing and felt great, so I let things go until arrival in Port Elizabeth and took just a few 30-60 minute ventures onto parts of the race course close to town. The run was a bit different – my knees and ankles were bothering me to no end, and I just wasn’t accustomed to the outdoor pounding even though my volume was lower than any week of training prior. After a 1-hour run out of the water the weekend before the race, my knees were on fire and my ankles were clicking for days – I just wasn’t accustomed to the pounding. I invested in some compression for the joints and tested them a few days before the race on a 20-minute jump, and the soreness came back. The IT bands were still locking up, and I was a bit concerned – rest, ice and more rest became my plan of action on the run, and I figured we’d just have to wait and see come race day. I figured worst case scenario, I could walk the marathon in 7-8 hours and still make the cutoff if everything else went to my pretty non-existent plan.
Sunday morning started around 3 a.m. I had planned to wake up at 4:30, but having gone to bed at 6 p.m. having not slept much the night before, my body just couldn’t take any more rest. Around 4:30 I ate the normal breakfast and took off to the start – a 30 minute walk from my hotel because of road closures (something to keep in mind for the next race…). The prediction was for major winds and rain – luckily, all we had at 5:30 a.m. when I started walking was a bit of rain and calm seas (pfew!). Maybe we’ll at least make it through the swim without wind – the day before, there were very loud whispers about the race being turned into a duathlon should the predicted swells appear. At 6:15 they announced that the swim would go off, so I meandered off to slip into my wetsuit and headed out for a practice swim. I got about 150m in, and thought, “all systems go…save it” – I actually waded back to shore rather than swim not wanting to spend an extra ounce of shoulder strength. Mental games would be the story of the day.
I waited until the last minute to join the corral of 1,700 for the swim start, stole some water from a fan to wash down a gel, and got to the beach the mandatory 15 minutes before the gun. I found myself remarkably calm at the start, and just soaked in the emotion of the thousands of fans, the incredibly inspiring South African national anthem, and the beating of the African drums. I bent down for a few moments of focus when someone tapped me on the shoulder 1 minute before the start – “you’re not going to hurl, are you?”. Ha! I guess my tactics are a bit foreign, but they worked…the gun went off, and I stood still. I waited for the folks in front of me to clear the corral (I started on the left towards the back), and as I did, this overwhelming sense of gratitude kept me happy, relaxed, and in absolute amazement of my good fortune to be standing where I was. Arms and legs flailing all over as 1,699 people were fighting for position, but I didn’t care – somehow it was just me, only me, and hits on the head and kicks in the stomach just didn’t phase me. My HR stayed remarkably low when it would normally be skyrocketing, and I settled into whatever rhythm I could find for the first few buoys. I was loving this.
Lap one I rotated between following toes and finding open water – with so many swimmers all shooting for the same buoys, the reality of open water just wasn’t there much on the first lap. So I settled into the reality of a peloton swim and tried to take advantage, deciding to split the middle between conserving energy and making sure I swim fast enough to make the cutoff. Coming to the end of the first of two 1.9k laps, I thought through possible times: 35-40 mins, take it easier and drop my HR even more to conserve for later, 45-55 mins, keep at it but try not to slip on lap 2, 56+, you’re gonna have to bust ass to be safe. Out of the water I found someone with a watch and saw 40:15…no worries. Lap 2 started, and so did the massive chop. Getting to buoy 1 was easy and I was even more relaxed than before, but between buoys 1 and 2, something went wrong. 700m turned into what felt like 2,000, and I couldn’t figure it out until I looked up and found myself 150m from the shortest line between the two buoys only about 1/3 of the way into that leg. This current was powerful, and the whole lot of us were being washed out to sea. I fought as much as I could, but that buoy didn’t seem to get any closer. A few of us silently teamed up to get a bit of a wake going as the field had disbursed, and we eventually fought our way back to the bouy. I was sure I had lost hours of time out there, but I couldn’t worry about it – I was still in a safe spot in the field, so I figured either 50% of the race would be cut off at the exit or we’d all make it, and I settled in again. Rounding the next buoy, one of the guys next to me popped up his head and shouted “holy s**t, are you kidding me?! What the f**k was that?!”…my thoughts exactly, and pretty much everyone around just grunted in agreement. The way back to shore was a bit easier, and mentally I spent the time preparing for the transition. I couldn’t wait to eat, as I was getting pretty hungry. Out of the water in around 1:27, so though slower, the last lap wasn’t as bad as expected.
I took some deep breaths, and couldn’t believe that the swim didn’t completely drain me – I actually felt strong out of the water. Swig of fresh water, changed into gear, took time to apply sun block now that the clouds were starting to clear, and broke into a PB&J sandwich. Next time I’m packing 2 or 3 of them – I swear to you it was the best thing I’d ever tasted, and I wanted to steal some school kid’s lunch on the way out of T1 to sink into another one. I was eating like a champ early on the bike, as well, and my body loved it – counter to some conventional wisdom about waiting until 15 mins into the bike.
HOLY HEADWIND!! Seriously, from transition until 30 km, it was ALL headwind. And this was no gentle breeze – it was a 50-60 kph burner that wasn’t even gusty – it was a wind tunnel that wouldn’t stop. I quickly realized that this bike leg could be the death of me if I didn’t take it in stride, especially for the first 14km which is all uphill, so I promptly jumped to a low gear and got aero when I didn’t need the extra breath. I did manage to keep my HR in the low 140s and dipping occasionally into the 138-9 territory – right where I want to be despite the wind. My speed was suffering greatly, but I figured I’d make it up on the back 9. I reached the turnaround in 1:04, and all of a sudden the world brightened up…I now had a tail wind that allowed me to sit up and sail in the saddle, and I was averaging 25 mph on a gradual uphill without overexerting. I could get used to this! There were a few twists and turns heading back to town that put me back head-on into the wind, but I got through those and was feeling relatively decent and very well hydrated at the end of lap 1.
On a sidenote, one cool thing about the week was the story that Ironman did about my training in Afghanistan. It ended up making it to the international Ironman website and they put it in the Port Elizabeth paper on the 4th page of the Ironman edition, so a bunch of people had read the story and talked to me about it before and after the race. This also got me some camera coverage on the bike, so for about 15km on the first lap of the bike, a camera crew on a motorcycle followed me. Next race I’m going to hire a camera crew to follow me around…the wide-angle lens forced my form and speed into tip-top shape in no time! I also realized that once you’re on tape during a race, you just don’t want to become that guy in the video coverage with extensive coverage, and then a DNF, so a huge motivator to take the day in stride!
So lap 2 gets started and the headwind crashes me back down to earth. I can’t imagine another hour-plus in these winds, and before I get to despair, I consciously decide to just shut my mind down. The beep of the watch reminds me to eat and drink, but I just didn’t allow myself to think about anything beyond gearing and energy conservation in the most logic-driven way. Literally, laps 2 and 3 I remember no negative thinking on the out portion of the bike – a time when I would normally be cursing the wind and wondering about its impact on my race. Instead, this time I quickly got into “this is reality – deal with it” mode, and it paid off. At the turnaround on the 2nd and 3rd laps, which came a bit slower each time, I switched my mind back on and reminded myself of what had become the promise to myself for the day: “you don’t have to win the race – you only have to finish it.” Inspired by Real Madrid’s head coach Jose Mourinho who tells his players “I’m not going to ask you to win every game – that would be too much pressure…but we DO NOT LOSE”, I saw every minute gained as a cushion that would help ensure a finish rather than every minute lost as a stat that would make my time worse. Life was good so long as I gave myself time to finish the marathon, and so I kept reminding myself.
Hydration went remarkably well – almost too well. I had invested in an aero drink to remind myself to drink, and it worked like a charm…so much so that on laps 2 and 3 I stopped no fewer than 7 times to pee (bushes, not port-o-jon). I knew I would crash hard on the last lap of the bike and the whole run if I couldn’t keep hydrated, so I probably overcompensated and drank pretty constantly. I was happy with that, though – much better than the other alternative! This also kept my nutrition pretty well on track, though come lap 3 of the bike, I started hating gels. Bananas became a sport, as did sampling a few other little items, but guy handing out Cajun peanuts, if you’re out there reading this, you are a bad, bad man for not telling us they were Cajun. I just about lost my bananas after unsuspectingly throwing a handful of those over-spiced monsters in my mouth.
The last lap of the bike was painful. The wind sucked and I was tired, though the worst part was the state of my stabilizer muscles…just not the ones I expected. My IT bands were doing well under the compression, but my back, my neck, my shoulders and my arms were on fire and aching like I had the flu. My upper body was not used to stabilizing a bike for 7 hours in major head and cross winds – the swim turned out to be just a fraction of the day’s upper-body workout, as holding the bike steady became harder than pedaling at several stages of the course. Each of the 3 laps became progressively slower as a combination of fatigue and a decision to slow down my HR for swaths of the bike in order save something for the run. This decision proved healthy, as I was still able to consume off the bike. To my surprise, my legs felt pretty decent coming down the home stretch – but it was my upper body that had been screaming for the last 3 hours to get off the bike. I learned a lot about the real challenges of converting indoor training to outdoor competition in those last few hours, and I could have drawn you a map of every part of every muscle that I promised to work out the next time I made an attempt at indoor training. On the run, though, I deleted that mental map and replaced it with the one-liner “YOU’RE AN IDIOT! THIS SUCKS – TRAIN OUTSIDE NEXT TIME!”
I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleased to finish 112 miles on the bike than I was entering T2, though that feeling didn’t last long as I realized the enormity of the marathon ahead. I’ve never run a marathon in an official race, so this was new territory on several levels. As I sat down to changed and came down briefly from the constant motion of the last 7.5 hours on the bike, I had trouble picturing the next few hours. A quick inventory revealed sore joints but strong legs, a general fatigue of about what I expected, an upper body that was still crying, and a mind that was still resolute. I knew it wouldn’t be for another 20 minutes though that I could take a true inventory.
The final leg started on a positive note, as I thought to myself for the first 2km “well this isn’t so hard…just hold this pace for a bit, and it’ll be over before you know it…” WRONG! I held that pace for about 6 km, but the finish line sure as hell didn’t get much closer! The next few km were more of a challenge – processing aid station fluids took progressively longer to prevent it from coming back up, and though I squeezed down 2 gels on lap one of 3, I started throwing unused gels away because I knew I wouldn’t be able to take them. My decision was to move to PowerAde, which I had been getting used to over the last 10 days while I had access to it in South Africa. I was glad to have done that, as it was the only thing my body seemed to want to consume.
In the last few km of lap one, the wheels started to come off. My ankles felt like they were about to break, the inside tendons on my knees started stabbing with every stride, and my GI track seemed pretty ready to shut its doors for the day. This was a weird place for me…I’d never really been here in a race. Sure, I felt awful on the run midway through the 13.1 of a 70.3, but that’s different than having 18 miles ahead of you when the wheels come off! My next decision kind of shocked me a bit at the time – I really never thought I would do it, but it was the only thing that made sense at the time…I made a plan to walk-jog in planned intervals. Then, rounding the 4km marker on lap 2, I decided to walk-walk. I really never thought it would come to that, but I didn’t feel like I had a choice any longer. With 24 km left, there was no way I would finish if I didn’t let my system come down. So after doing some quick math in my head, I reminded myself “You don’t have to win the race – you only have to finish it”, and slowed down to ensure a finish. Then the sun went down, and it started raining. The wind had not gone away all day, and with the sun now gone, it got really cold really fast. The temp down into the low 50s with a cold rain and constant wind – not to mention that I was now walking – I froze like a popsicle in just a few minutes. If I started running again I would burn the last gas in the tank, and if I didn’t I would freeze…well shit. Thinking through the options and not coming up with a good one other than using my special needs bag as an arm warmer, I ran into a friendly face – that of the owner of a bike shop between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth who I had met the week before in her shop. She was wrapped in a space blanket and walking, as well, so we started talking. 3 km later she saved my life – a friend brought over a fleece and a jacket for her, and she gave me her space blanket. 20 minutes later, and I was cooking – well, at least not freezing – and I had gained a walking partner.
We paced things out and walked as fast as possible. Water and PowerAde were running through me at every aid station, so my walk-walk combo became a walk-jog combo as I kept up with her racewalking pace between pee breaks in the bushes. A few times I thought about picking up and running again, but again made a decision that I never thought I would – I opted to keep walking to make sure that I finished, as my body wasn’t taking any real nutrition and there was still a lot of ground to cover. Being completely unfamiliar with the distance, I didn’t feel like I could risk a full-on blow up 10k from the end. So we kept walking together as fast as we could, continually time checking to make sure we were ok. Finally, with 6 km to go, both our legs were beaten to hell even after walking 1.5 laps. Deciding I really couldn’t stand walking anymore, I decided to give it a go. After about 1.5 km of running through leg and stomach pain, I caught a glimse of the glow of the finishing area in the distant sky and a boost of energy shot through me. I felt ok, and when I didn’t I figured it would all be over soon if I kept running, so I just ignored it. I got closer, and the rain started hard again. The crowd got closer, but I didn’t really care – I was shooting for the finish line. Those last 6 km clicked away faster than any others through the entire race, and my screaming legs carried me past a group of folks who had been steadily passing me for the last 2 hours or so. I got to town and for the first time knew that I was going to finish. All I could think as I rounded the last bend into the finishing chute was “finally” – not only that the day would finally be over, but that I would finally complete the Ironman distance, that I was finally outside, that I would finally end this rather arduous journey, and that, finally, I would be an Ironman.
Having run the race rather conservatively and hydrating well along the way, within 45 minutes after the race I was eating soup, a chicken burger and pizza – much different than my past post-races. There would be no IVs this time, and instead popped a few celebratory beers with a friend from Ireland and his wife along with my awesome support crew that flew all the way over from the US.
The day after the race, people went crazy about the conditions. This guy who was doing IMSA as his 30th IM told us it was his hardest ever because of the wind, and several guys from Argentina and Spain with an average of around 12 IMs each echoed the sentiment over breakfast. Later in the week, we got the official results, with an unofficial DNF rate of 21%. Seems high – I’m just happy that I didn’t make it 21.01%!!
Life is good, Ironman is over, and time to get lazy for a month or so.
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