*** many thanks to David Labouchere for this race report ***
2013 is the culmination of a three year Triathlon plan that I commenced in 2010, as I am 50 years old this year and thus at the young end of a new Age Group. I entered Ironman South Africa in August 2012 as a part of this plan. Having raced Ironman in Port Elizabeth two years ago, I felt that I would benefit from knowing the course and have a chance to qualify for the Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii in October 2013.
The first and probably the biggest influence on my chances has been the Team. TRIbe Racing is a group of friends who train and race together. We have a wide spectrum of members of both sexes and in all age groups. I am the only TRIbe athlete over 50 in 2013, but still the competition within the team has proved to be a major factor in my development this season. Above all, the willingness of our most talented athlete, Nick Tipper, to coach three of us directly and in detail in 2012/13 seemed vital to my World Championship qualifying attempt. ‘Tipps’ coaches Chris Knight, Garry Whyte and me. Chris entered with me for IMSA in Port Elizabeth as did TRIbe members Beau Gambon and Marty Veale. Throughout the year, training was structured, scientific and immediately netted tangible results. Chris (46), Garry (39) and I recorded lifetime best performances at all races, and despite a nasty spasm injury to my piriformis muscle a few weeks before the race, Chris and I went to South Africa in the form of our lives. Sadly we lost Marty in the last week when his worst fears were confirmed and he was unable to take time off work. Thus South Africa became all about Chris, Beau and me.
Chris travels business class and arrived in PE a day before me. He texted back to ensure that I brought warm clothes as it was cold, wet and windy on the southern Indian Ocean coast. I travel economy and sat for the majority of the 9 hours from Dubai to Johannesburg between two large men. The shaven-headed one on my left looked like the archetypical white supremacist from the Southern states, minus swastika tattoos, and smelt heavily of old sweat and stale beer. He regularly exercised voluminous stretches to air every crevice. On my right an equally obese South African with a stained moustache snored with curried exhalations coupled with almost silent but densely disturbing flatulence. It was a long, aromatic flight. On arrival the weather was quickly changing for the better and looked very positive for race day. Accommodated again with Lyn and Fred at their beautiful B&B only 300m from the race-start, we all felt that we were in the best possible administrative situation. Beau arrived a full day later on the Thursday and with Colleen Knight and Carol Gambon in support that completed the perfect team. Fit, healthy and race ready.
We watched various websites but as race day Sunday approached it became increasingly likely that the weather would be good. Despite Port Elizabeth’s reputation as the ‘Windy City’ the only problem would be a gentle Easterly breeze. While this meant a headwind for over 70% of the race, it would affect everyone equally and our training in the rarely calm deserts of Dubai might give us a small advantage over the opposition. My bike had suffered some damage when two large baggage handlers in Johannesburg had roughly placed it on the portable beltlift and then rode up to the aircraft on the soft bag, innocently chatting side by side on a ten thousand dollar instrument and wheels designed to withstand linear rather than lateral force. Fred kindly took me to a local bike shop where structural issues could be investigated and fixed.
On the Thursday, Friday and Saturday we rose early and swam on the 1.9km course at the precise hour of the race – 7 am. The water was 17 degrees – chilly for spoilt Dubai types – and dark. The sea off PE is always a little ‘lumpy’ but the rising sun each day lifted spirits and training speeds and over these three days we got into a relaxed daily rhythm of swim followed by a long, leisurely breakfast. This became the high point of each day with gentle banter (Beau ‘Swiss Tony’ Gambon had decided to grow his hair for the first time since joining the Army 27 years ago and now looked slightly camp) and endless good humour and cups of coffee.
We rode our bikes too; I checked that the damage to my P5 had been fully rectified and we all reminded ourselves of the very agricultural nature of the tarmac on the bike course. Chris was full of fire, well-rested and raring to go. I knew I had a real race on my hands as he is a far superior runner.
Chris and I had a massage on the Friday. I wanted a final confidence boosting assessment of my piriformis and an expert physiotherapist, Marika, reported that my legs were in really good order. No lumps, hotspots or damage. Tipps had delivered us to this race, ready.
And we ran most days. Not hard. And here again we found that our coach’s prescription of shorter harder exercise in the lead up to the race was paying dividends. I was lighter than I had been anytime in my adult life having shed 10kgs in the year through a combination of vastly improved diet and long slow exercise, and we were both light on our feet. The machine said I was down to around 5.5% bodyfat, which is approaching the minimum, and is evinced by a lean racehorselike spider web network of blood supply on the outside of the body. Nicks approach is always a combination of input and output and at his direction I had given up my excessive sugar habit. I attribute most of the weight loss to this one, major advance and as I bounced along the seafront trying to keep the pace down, I knew that I could do the run and do it well. The run route is a three repeats of 14km affair, comprising a 4 km ‘out and back’ leg that passes the start 6 times, and a 10 km loop. On the day the spectators lined the Sea Front with tents and barbeques, and provided an extreme level of positive alcohol-fueled support, while the section out and around the University offered a peaceful respite to settle in and enjoy the event.
The three year plan, if executed cleanly, would result in a Kona Qualification from this race. This was my overriding and primary aim. Given the most likely race allocation of potential slots for the World Championships I would have to get on the podium for my age group to guarantee a place. There was an outside chance of an additional slot in age but this was unlikely. Supporting goals were process oriented with discipline, particularly on the bike and run, being vital. I had to bike conservatively so as to start the run with a clear 42kms of racing left in my legs, and I had to begin the run gently to ensure that I did not break mid-run as I had in 2011. I also harboured every amateur Ironman’s perennial hope that I could break the 10 hour barrier on a full-length, competitive, demanding course.
Race day dawned with a perfect sea of gently rolling swells and waves just big enough to make getting into the water interesting but not challenging. The wind was light and the visibility was good. The people of PE were setting up tents and sunshades on both sides of the bike and run course, breakfasts were being cooked on open ‘Brai’s and there was a wonderful buzz in the air. I had slept well, and I ate a good breakfast before wandering down to the start with Chris and Beau ‘Quiff’ Gambon to make final checks. We returned to our rooms to change into wetsuits and then, pensive and focused, walked out together to the warmup and the start.
1700 athletes of every creed, cast, colour, sex, age and size, gathered together in a crush on the beach, were suddenly released by the report of the cannon and we surged forward, a shiny black slick of athletic humanity flowing off the beach and into the sea. And the world degenerated into white spray around me as chaos broke out. Flailing arms and legs, some bodies upright and pushing hard off the sand through the crashing waves while others dove deep and swam early. Impact followed impact. I took a direct heel-blow to my left eyesocket, the goggles forced deep against the eyeball, but the seal held and I could continue. Then someone was climbing bodily onto my back, sinking me towards the receding sand still visible a few metres below. Popping back up to the surface a swinging arm caught the back of my head as I sighted for the first buoy some 300m directly into the rising sun. The fight continued, but slowly I realized that a swim was breaking out. I strung two or three strokes together without touching anyone and the race was on. Until the first buoy. 1700 athletes going round a mark as one. Again it was fight and survive, but by now I was into the swing of it, ready to go without a breath or two if necessary and giving as good as I got. The overwhelmingly South African crowd were hugely aggressive and took no prisoners, and nor did I.
At this time of year there is a ‘sardine run’ that takes place on the South African coast. A shoal of sardines packed solid for protection in numbers makes it’s way down from Durban to the Cape. It stretches over 5kms and was passing Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth as we swam. It attracts larger fish. First the Tuna and Dorito then Dolphins feed well and finally the sharks come through. I thanked goodness for the sardine run as it takes the monster predators away from Shark Pier whence we started the swim and out to the deeper waters. They feed well. Then too, the organizers were taking no chances, we were surrounded by boats of every description from cruiser yachts to stand up paddle boards. The outboard motors on the rigid inflatables left a shimmy of marine petrol on the surface of the churning water and a taste in my mouth. And 1700 people fighting in the water makes a huge commotion – probably enough to scare off the most inquisitive of Great Whites – we saw no sharks. Now, about the three previous unprotected days …
Two laps and an even better clout to the right eye later I was out of the water and adjusting to being upright after one hour and five minutes horizontal. With the transition area still sparsely populated I knew that I was ahead of the bulk of the race, and I got through cleanly and quickly. The helpers knew what they were doing and I was divested of my wetsuit, barefoot through the longish route round transition and onto my bike in less than three minutes. I pressed the requisite computer buttons on both bike and wrist to ensure that I recorded good data for Tipps and settled down to ride.
The bike route is 60kms repeated three times. After three kms of flat town asphalt you turn and climb first steeply but then more gently for about 10kms. There follows a stretch of pleasantly quick downhill riding and then undulating fast straight road. At 25kms you turn back on yourself for a while before a sharp turn towards the coast and the circuitous Marine Drive takes you back to the City. Discipline. Process goal number one. I ride with a power meter. Strain gauges in the crank register exactly how much power in watts I put through the pedals. I had to ride at no more than 220w of normalized power (NP) or 68% of my best sustainable power. No more than a Training Stress Score (TSS) of 80 on the first lap. I failed. I rode too hard up the first 10kms and despite completely coming off the power, the next 50kms did not redress my mistake and at the end of lap one I had 229w NP and a TSS in the 90s. Tipps would kill me: I was not far off the mark but a miss is as good as a mile. So, too late, I reined my competitive spirit in, deeply unhappy to be riding so conservatively and watching lap times far inferior to my effort two years previously. But then, two years previously I had completely broken on the run. So I fought the red mist of competitive ire that rose periodically as I rode, and brought home the last two laps at goal power and stress. I rode the bike for a leisurely 5 hours and 25 minutes.
I saw Chris three times, once on each bike lap and he was holding the gap between us. I knew that he would catch me somewhere on the run, and hoped that it would be in the last three kms so that I could unleash whatever energy I had left at that point and race him home.
In transition 2 I stopped the computer and my bike was quickly taken away from me. Then I was out and onto the run, again in less than three minutes. I felt light and strong and danced off into the crowds lining the route. I checked my watch. Discipline, again! Too fast. I slowed. Still too fast. I needed to run at 5mins/km and somehow, despite feeling like I was jogging backwards, I was still recording 4.40s. I finally got the pace under control at 5 kms and settled for the long haul. I was overtaking a lot of athletes and seemed set fair for my target time of 3:30 for the marathon. But then gremlins invaded my legs. I first felt them in the upper quads (rectus femoris) and then in my calves as my left gastrocnemius began to contract uncontrollably. From behind you could see the alien movement under the skin, ripples of muscular contraction out of sync with the running pace. Cramp. It spread to my right calf, then deeper into the quads, then my hamstrings. I slowed. I concentrated on form and held pace for a while, despite the odd involuntary stagger as errant signals fired muscles that took my whole body out of balance. My nutrition was good. I was strong and well-fuelled but chronic muscle fatigue manifests itself in a variety of ways and my legs were signaling distress. And cramp hurts too. At 28kms I gave up the unfair fight and walked through a feed station. The cramp eased immediately and I was able to run well again soon thereafter. But now the cramp came in waves and I was forced to walk for 500m then run 500m alternatively. My pace dropped drastically and I knew that the next 12 kms would involve some real discomfort. Chris tapped my behind without a word as he cantered past. The perennial teacher’s pet, I knew that he had maintained discipline and was running with easy perfect form. He just looked ‘right’. Tipps would be pleased with one of us!
With 6 kms to go an athlete jogged past me. He had bright red calf compression socks, a red visor and a Union Flag bandanna. And he looked around 45 or 50… I watched him go. I was running, staggering, walking, recovering, running again. With 4 kms to go he was 500m ahead. My heartrate was low, my energy high but my legs were barely under control. What if he was now third in my age group and I was fourth? He would go to Kona in my place. I accelerated and slowly the bright red legs got closer. I couldn’t control my stride length well, and some spectators recognized that I was running abnormally. But that raised their vocal support and I pushed again. I got up behind the Brit, and held station. After a while he realized he had a shadow and put in a couple of bursts to try to break me. I held on. Then he slowed and I came onto his shoulder. How old are you? 50, he replied. ‘That’s a bugger’, said I and I started to run. At this point I don’t really recall very much. He had to be a few feet behind me, but my ears were filled with the roaring sound of blind effort. I ran harder. I was now overtaking everyone, pushing through gaps and losing clarity of sight.
I knew that there was a gantry over the road shortly before the exit to the finishing area. I couldn’t focus and began to think that I had badly mistimed this effort. I dreaded a collapse, knowing that he would then sprint past me to take my place. I kept going and suddenly I saw the gantry and I was turning into the finish. I pushed past someone on the run in, the spectre of the Brit close on my shoulder, and ran as hard as I could right to the line. I raised both hands for the photo. Finished. Only then did I look back and no one was on the red carpet. He hadn’t come with me!
Legs twitching, and with faltering forward progress, I made my staccato way to the massage tent and found a friend in Marika. She put me on a bed and tried to go to work. But every time she touched any muscle, from ankle to hip, it went into spasm and with each spasm I roared. She gave up (apparently I was bad for business) and placed me in the corner on a chair where I sat quietly and tried not to move. Chris had been home for a full 15 minutes. He was relaxed and looked fresh. Discipline, (sigh).
I came fourth in age. Chris, in a much stronger field at 45-49 and a full 15 minutes faster than me, came ninth. It transpired that when I started my stalk of the Brit with the bandanna I was sixth. Overtaking him meant fifth place and in my blind dash to the line somewhere I had overtaken another 50 year old. But fourth was unlikely to be enough. Second and third place in my age group were less than two minutes in front of me. Discipline. Without the cramp I could well have gone 15 minutes better and won the age group. It looked like a case of ‘so near yet so far’ for Kona.
Beau ‘Swiss Tony’ Gambon also had a really good race and netted a fine PB on the day. His bike was as quick as both Chris and mine, but his swim and run were slightly slower.
We went to the Kona slot allocation. I withdrew the necessary funds just in case they allocated an extra slot for my age group. The wait was interminable. They announce the allocation and my heart sank – three slots for 50-55. Then they called the names and the first place answered ‘Yes!’ and the second… ‘Yes!’ And the third… … … silence. Chris whispered across the table: ‘you’re going!’ And then my name was called and I was on my feet before the ‘ere’ of Labouchere. Kona. With a lot of luck and despite my indiscipline; this time, I am going.
Yours in IM,
P.S. There are many, mostly family and friends, who have made much sacrifice on my behalf over the training year – huge thanks to you all. To Caroline, Max and Mimi I am grateful beyond words – this is a peculiar mid-life crisis.
Thank you to my best friends in TRIbe Racing whose positivity and generosity of spirit were essential to our preparation over the last year. To Colleen and Carol who were there with us. Also, special thanks must go to all in Dubai who supported the large UAE contingent in South Africa: particularly all those in TriDubai (notably Roy, Ian and Christian), whose help and magnanimity was evidenced everywhere in PE. Also to our cousins in Abu Dhabi (Helen, Russ, Andy et al).
And finally to Nick Tipper, the best new coach an athlete could possibly hope for, who put on hold his own elite sporting aspirations this season for us – Thank You.