On the 7th of July 2019, I completed my first full Ironman. 3.8 km Swim, 180km Bike, 42.2 km run. Here is my story.
“You can’t wing an Ironman race!” My friend Barry was telling me off for not having a proper race plan in place for my first Ironman distance in Austria. I had no idea what to expect and how my body would react on race day over such a distance, so I just shrugged my shoulders and secretly hoped that my limited knowledge on nutrition and race efforts will be enough to help me through. “Listen to your body” - that was my humble strategy.
On the Thursday before the race, I got onto the flight to Zagreb with my friends from TeamAngelWolf, Kevin, David and Emma as well as TriDubai friends Stefanie, Maria and Alan. Months of training in Dubai summer has forged us into endurance machines. I was feeling slightly under the weather after a week of being on the verge of illness. An upset stomach triggered laryngitis and left me feeling fatigued, voiceless and with an itchy throat and tenacious cough. We hired a minibus in Zagreb and drove the 3 hours to Klagenfurt where we first dropped off everyone staying at the Seepark Hotel and then went to registration. It was a nice walk along the canal to the Ironman village and beautiful to be outdoors, breathing in the fresh Austrian air.
Emma and I stayed in a self-catering apartment, about a 6 min drive away from Seepark Hotel. I moved into the living room as my night coughing fits would certainly wake Emma up too. On Friday morning, Emma and I went for a short run to stretch the legs and later everyone met for a practice swim at the lake. The water in Lake Wortherseë is super clear, fresh and the Strandbad is a great place to hang out for locals and visitors alike. People wearing scant bathing costumes were chilling everywhere in the sunshine on the 3 wooden piers and on the grass around the beach huts. We took our wetsuits with us but realized that it was just way too hot for a wetsuit swim. We would certainly boil in the suit before we reached the water. We swam out to the coffee boat that was handing out free cups of coffee during the swim practice time slots! They had run out of coffee by the time we got to it, but it was a nice idea and the swim was great.
After a cup of coffee on shore, we took a ride in the van around the second 90 km of the bike course and had lunch along the way. The sun was out and the views stunning. I was excited to ride it on Sunday and made mental notes of most of the uphills and long downhills. It was going to be fun!
We unpacked the bikes and then went back to the Iron dome for the pasta party. Paul Kaye recognized our TeamAngelWolf shirts while we were standing in line to get food and came over to say hi. Proudly South African, I am always super chuffed to have him as the race announcer as he's the only one who has never failed to pronounce my name and surname correctly. (My surname unfortunately ended up on my bib number and I was 100% certain that no spectator would be able to say it to cheer me on...)
Back at the apartment we took our bikes out for a spin around the neighbourhood to see if all was working well after traveling and putting it back together. Something didn't feel quite right on my setup, but I couldn't work out what it was, and I let it pass.
The English race briefing was on Saturday morning, followed by another swim and final walk around the expo to sign our names on the race boards. At 5 pm we checked the bikes and race bags to transition and after a quick photo session with pro athlete Daniela Ryf we settled for an early night.
I overslept on race morning. That is not a great start to any morning, but especially not on a first ever Ironman race morning! Fortunately, Emma was up almost 40 minutes earlier and chased me out of bed just in time to swallow down two packets of oats and a couple of energy bars before we set off to transition.
Our short 6 min drive to the race transition area was disrupted by unexpected road closures and turned out to be much, MUCH longer and quite stressful. We made it with time to spare but prep time in transition was rushed - getting wheels pumped and nutrition on the bike and in the race bags – and only then I realised that I forgot my special needs bags with extra nutrition at home. Things were not starting off very well…
The walk to the swim start at the Strandbad was a couple of minutes away and I was thankful for this time to calm my thoughts and focus on all that lies ahead. Also thankful for my race buddies and other athletes chirping out their enthusiasm and nervous excitement as we walked along the LendKanal that we would be swimming in momentarily on our final stretch towards T1. We had plenty of time to take photos, wish each other good luck and make our way to the swimming start pens.
Kevin and I went in the 1:10 to 1:15 start group and soon we were at the gate and in the water. I loved the swim! The water was clear and beautiful, cool enough for a very pleasant swim. I immediately found good rhythm and was passing other athletes one after the other. Paul Kaye suggested in the race briefing to celebrate small milestones, and that was exactly what I did. It was the first time that I wore a watch during a long-distance race and I celebrated every time my Garmin vibrated another 500 m in the bag. The last turning buoy had us swimming directly into the sun and blinded by the glare, I was zig-zagging towards the entry point to the canal. The last 800 m was up in the canal and soon I could hear the cheering of the crowds that lined the grassy sides all the way to the swim exit. Lovely! Eager hands grabbed mine as I reached the pontoon and pulled me out of the water and sent me off towards the transition area. I smiled and high fived the wonderful spectators the whole way on my 400 m run to T1.
On the bike I felt great. We made our way on winding roads through little towns and beautiful fields, everywhere people cheering and clapping: “Hup! Hup! Hup! Superfrau!” The spectators were fantastic. Every turn a more spectacular view. After the first big climb I had to pull over to tighten my wheel skewers. They were slightly undone, and I didn’t want to risk the possibility of losing a wheel on the downhill. Should have double checked it… Soon Kevin came past me, being much stronger on the bike and I stayed behind him for a couple of kilometres, picking up my own pace a bit until the next big climb. I lost my one water bottle on a bumpy downhill and ran out of water for about 10 km before reaching the halfway mark in Klagenfurt, but all was going well. I felt strong and really had a great time, celebrating every 10 km marker and absorbing the experience.
The second loop was more challenging than the first but absolutely gorgeous and a feast for the eyes. I used the course nutrition as I didn’t have my special needs bag, eating bananas and energy bars and popping extra gels into my back pockets. At the last aid station, the weather changed, and thick clouds rolled in. It was hard to stay down on the tribars with winds gusting about and soon buckets of rain came pouring down. Streams of salty water were running down my face behind the helmet visor that thankfully protected me from the nasty stings of the heavy raindrops. It was crazy, exhilarating and adventurous, and my heart was unquestionably in a happy place. I was equally concerned about my friends who were up in the mountains behind me and who has never experienced something like this before, praying for their safe return to T2. They warned us during the race briefing that a thunderstorm could have the race black flagged and with that in mind, I raced towards T2 to avoid any potential cut-offs, passing many unconfident cyclists on the last stretch.
T2 was a mess, the pro’s bicycles were all lying on the ground, carpets disorderedly blown, leaves and branches everywhere and loads of people hanging out in the changing tents. I took off my cycling shoes and one sock to put dry ones on for the run, but then realised they will be soaking wet within seconds anyway. The wet sock went back on and off I went into the storm. Happy! The Gazelle is on the run.
It was cold – so much different from when I left T2 on the bike in the morning – but I also knew that my body was used to Dubai’s heat and that the cold would be 100% to my advantage. The first bit of the running course was empty though, no spectators and I also didn’t see many other runners in front of me. The legs felt good and I pushed happily forward, concentrating not to overdo it in the first couple of kilometres. And then along the canal, under the bridge suddenly there were spectators: hiding away from the rain, packed like sardines in a tin, leaving just enough room for the runners to pass, their cheers echoing loud in the confined space. A Mexican wave of hands and high-fives escorted me through and made me feel like a true hero. This was an awesome, a heart-warming experience.
I caught up with Sascha, a fellow Dubai athlete after about 5km and we set off at the same pace together. Mentally that was probably the best thing that could have happened to me as he runs consistently strong and we were chatting as the kilometres ticked by. The rain stopped, and the crowds came back, cheering enthusiastically like I have never experienced before. (Always shouting Sascha’s name of course! 😊) I saw Kevin and David, later Stefanie, Maria and other Dubai athletes and each passing was an exchange of encouragement. Stefanie’s husband, Dario, took photos and I could imagine the TeamAngelWolf WhatsApp group buzzing with encouraging comments every time we crossed a timing mat. At around 30 km my hips started aching and although I fuelled well and drank a lot I was suddenly very hungry. A banana took care of that need and we briefly walked a few aid stations to give the muscles a break. We made a final lap through the vibrant town square, ringing the charity bell and before long we were done with 40km and on the final stretch to the red carpet. We picked up the pace and I raced ahead for the last 500m, realizing only then that I can actually complete a sub 11h race! I ran into the finisher chute, smiling brightly and feeling super proud, throwing my hands in the air like a true champion.
Crossing the line was a phenomenal experience! So much joy when Paul Kaye said “Juffrou Oosthuizen, you are an Ironman” and I gave him a high five and huge smile. I received my medal and hugged the volunteer, waited for Sascha to come in and together we moved off the stage to meet up with Kevin, who finished a few minutes before, to celebrate what we have just accomplished. 10:58:56, and 8th in my age group. I am thrilled! Not bad for a first Ironman!
I thank my Father in heaven for giving me the ability to run and to run well. So many things could have gone wrong, but I was blessed with a brilliant day. I am thankful to be healthy and pray that my life song will always be to praise Him. I was coughing through the swim and on the bike and run – for another week after the race – and yet it didn’t hold me back during the race and I felt good and happy throughout.
The road to becoming an Ironman cannot be done in isolation and I want to thank everyone who contributed generously to my development and all who believed in me and supported me on my journey. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!
To my two training buddies Kevin and Barry who consistently helped me prepare for this race, gave me a training program, forced me to buy a new bike, built up my strength and endurance, while preparing for their own races. Thanks guys!!! It was an honour to train with you. Swim coaches Brett and Paolo who helped me to pick up my swim. Race friends Emma, David, Stefanie, Maria and Alan who shared the dream and who made the experience and holiday so memorable. Well done, I am so proud of all of you for your achievements. It’s a privilege to know you all. To TeamAngelWolf for loads of shout-outs, messages and the greatest support, thanks for being awesome! TriDubai where it all started and where we all belong to a fantastic community… so many friends and family who followed my progress on race day. Thank you!
My dad Wessel, mom Thea and bother Chris. Thank you, I love you.
I guess the only remaining question is…What’s next? 😊