Maybe it’s best to start with where it ends. Or at least, where I hope it ends: in Port Elizabeth.
I’d never even heard of Ironman before my wife Val and I went to live in South Africa for six months in 2012. It just so happened that Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape, where we were living, was the host venue, and so it was taking place right under our noses.
There was quite a lot of razzamatazz in the city in the lead up to the event, and on the night before it was due to take place we decided we’d get up especially early to be there in good time for the 07:00 start, to see what it was all about. Waking up to the alarm clock early on Sunday morning, a peep through the curtains revealed a miserable wet day, and not a warm one either. Val opted to stay in bed; I wrapped up and headed to the beach front for the mass start with hundreds of swimmers lined up like penguins all ready to jump into the water.
A 2.4 mile swim. Followed by a 112 mile bike ride. Finished off with a 26 mile marathon. The swim has to be completed in 2.5 hours, the combined swim and bike elements in 10 hours, and the whole thing in a maximum of 17 hours. Miss those cut-offs, and you’re out. Complete the whole event in 17hrs and one minute, and your effort doesn’t count.
The more I found out, the more I got drawn in. There was no way I could do that, absolutely no way. No way I’d want to! A stupid challenge for other people to take on. Then, as the swimmers slowly emerged from the sea to finish the first of their two laps, I noticed one of them was an amputee. And another one was blind, fastened by a wrist strap to a volunteer who would swim every metre, stroke for stroke, alongside him. And would cycle with him and run with him the whole way round. Their grit and determination, and the selflessness of the guide, struck a chord with me.
Why couldn’t I do it!? Why shouldn’t I do it?
I stayed far longer during the 17 hours than I’d intended, popping the short journey back home every now and again, returning for the bike cut off, and – with Val in tow – standing at the finish line as first 23:00 arrived, and then the clock ticked down to cut-off time: midnight. It was cold, dark and wet – bad enough for us, but I can only imagine what it was like for the few people still left on the course. Every few minutes a new straggler would arrive, greeted with the cheesy but wonderful words “You are an Ironman”, and we clapped and cheered and didn’t want it to end.
That day obviously left a far greater impression on me even than I’d realised at the time. And it’s because of that – and the warmth of the wonderful, welcoming people who made us feel so at home in South Africa – that I’ve decided I want to experience it too.
I have just over a year left to get physically and mentally ready for the challenge, starting with the London Marathon in April 2015. I’m raising money for the Pattenmakers Charitable Foundation, which you can read about elsewhere on my blog, who I hope will benefit from the support you give me.
I’ve cycled before, so I’m less worried about that part for now. But I do have the fear, and that comes in the shape of the open-sea swimming, all 2.4 miles of it.