It’s been more than a week since I completed my first Ironman, and a good chance to reflect on my achievement and look back on the day with a little more perspective. So here they are: my memories of 10 April, 2016. Race day re-lived. The day I became an Ironman!
03.20-04:50 Wakey wakey
An early alarm, giving me plenty of time to get up and carry out the checklist of tasks I’d carefully written out the day before. Just like for the London Marathon, everything is listed so I don’t have to think. 03:30, breakfast (toast, chocolate spread, a banana, a SIS gel). 04:00, toilet. 04:15, shower. 04:20, beetroot juice. 04:21, put watch on. 04:25, put contact lenses in. 04:30, apply sunscreen. 04:45, check timing chip, get dressed. And so on …
04.50-06:30 The start
Time to head to the start. At the race briefing, the organiser said you can never get there too early and he was right. Val drives me the short distance to the starting enclosure. It’s not long before we hit the road closures, and I have to walk the final stretch on my own. Getting out of the car it feels like Mum’s dropping me off for my first day at school. I look over my shoulder and wave goodbye. In front of me, glistening in the dark morning sky, I head towards the Indian Ocean. I feel ready for it.
Time goes by in a blur. I borrow someone’s footpump to inflate my tyres (they can burst if you leave them pumped to the max in the heat, so it’s a task for race day morning). Everyone’s doing the same thing. As the guy at the briefing had predicted, I’m all fingers and thumbs. I need the toilet again, and queue for ages, and then there’s only just time to get to the beach for the 06:25 assembly time. I forget to put my flip flops in my kit bag, find myself still wearing them as I hit the beach. I find a bin and throw them away, no other choice.
I’m disconnected, completely focused on getting in the water, getting on with the swim. The swim start is self-seeded: you choose where in the pack you want to start. I place myself what I think is about two thirds of the way back, aiming for a 90-100 min swim time: about 1,200 people ahead of me, 600 people behind me. I hear a choir singing a rousing melody and I realise, only from watching the athletes with their hands clasped to their wetsuit covered hearts, it’s the South African national anthem.
06:30-08:47 The swim
At 06:30, the gun goes off and the pro athletes start, first the men, then the women. The wait for us ‘age grouper’ amateurs seems like forever. The entry chute to the beach seems clogged solid and we barely move. I’m suddenly very thirsty, and realise I haven’t drunk anything since about 04:30, a silly mistake. I resort to drinking a half-empty bottle of water lying in the sand, discarded by an earlier athlete. It’s better than nothing. I look around for Val among the thousands of of spectators crowding the beach, but I can’t see her.
Slowly, we begin to move forward. All of a sudden I hear the announcer say “Let’s welcome the last 20 athletes onto the course” and I look around and see there’s no one behind me. Somehow, I’ve found myself at the very back of the field, without even noticing. I suddenly feel completely alone, and I’m really annoyed with myself. I’d been determined to attack the course, no prisoners, fight for my space in the water, and without realising I’m already at the back. That also means I’m starting at 07:10, ten minutes later than I’d planned. And while the cut-offs are based on my own personal chip time, some of the roads on the cycle course re-open to the public at fixed times: if you miss those, you’re out, so a late start can definitely be a disadvantage.
But also an advantage. On the upside, there is little in the way of competition for space in the water. I negotiate the whole course with only one major collision, which causes me to take a big gulp of sea water and swear underwater at the perpetrator. (It doesn’t cross my mind I might BE the perpetrator!) But in a busy sea it could have been much worse than that.
Once round the first red buoy, the outward leg is 1,600 metres long, 64 lengths of a standard swimming pool. The swell is noticeable, but the biggest problem is sighting. The yellow course marker buoys are easily visible from the shore, but with the rise and fall of the waves, and the salt stained distortion from my goggles, I can’t see them easily, and there’s no one else to really follow. I swim quite a way off course, kicking myself for the wasted effort.
My mind starts to play tricks. It’s lonely, I’m off course, I feel lost, I have no idea how quickly I’m swimming. But I can counter them. It’s just a swim, float not sink, and it’s a beautiful day in the Bay. Yes, above all, it’s a beautiful, sunny day in the Bay, and a privilege to be out here enjoying it for this lovely morning swim before the ‘challenge proper’ (a bike ride and a marathon) starts.
I know the second red buoy means I’m over half way, and I’m making progress. It’s a short swim to the third red buoy, and then the long home stretch back towards the start. There’s a lovely view of the Radisson SAS hotel lined up in the distance, which makes swimming straight so much easier. I’m enjoying this, and I speed up. The current kicks in to make life a little harder, dragging me out to sea as I zig-zag back to shore, but I’m getting closer and I know I’m going to make it. In the distance I can hear the tannoy and the excitement of the crowds.
Then it’s my overactive mind again, pushing me to get ahead of myself, thinking about transition for the cycling leg and tactics on the bike. I know to ignore it, focus on finishing the swim properly, it’s not over until I’m out of the water.
And suddenly, I’m swimming and swimming and swimming and the sea bed is sandy and yellow, to the point that the water is so shallow I can barely stand myself up. I’m done! The first thing I do is roll up my sleeve and look at my watch. I’ve convinced myself I’m behind, half-dreading, half-accepting the time I’ll need to catch up. But it’s 08:47, 1 hr and 37 mins after I started, and comfortably quicker than I’d feared. I’m happy; I smile; and I’m enjoying myself.
Stripping off my wetsuit, I see Val in the small crowd right on the beach along with our friends Keith and Claire. I give her a kiss on her bright red lips, and then head to transition. I feel fine, and I’m very conscious I should run off the beach ‘because that’s what Ironmen do’. I’m consciously adopting a persona here, it’s getting me through.
08:47-09:00 T1 transition
And so to T1, as the swim-to-bike transition is known. I wee for the first time in my wetsuit as one of the volunteers hoses the sand off me; (“Don’t worry, you’re not the first”). I don’t know where time goes, but another volunteer is helping me put on my skin-clinging base layer over my still-wet body. I’m conscious that my breathing is shallow and I’m obsessed with buckling my cycle helmet. Four girls lather me in sunscreen and I head off in search of my bike.
Just the day before, I’d been concerned I wouldn’t find my bike among the 1,900 or so all racked alongside it. As soon as I turn the corner, I see my it from over 100 yards away: orange, standing on its own, the others long since out on the course. It’s only 09:00 and I have to laugh at my naivety. It cheers me, and makes me more determined at the same time.
Then I’m heading out of transition, being careful to walk the bike, not ride it, for fear of incurring penalties. I’ve read the rule book countless times, it’s all there in my head, and I’m concentrating so hard to remember it all I’m barely aware of what’s going on around me. Val, Keith and Claire are there at the entrance to see me off. I feel like Simon Cowell as I give them a smile and a salute. I forget to tell them I’m happy, I’m ahead of time, I up for this.
09:00-16:18 The cycle
I’m cycling, and I’m making good time. The bikes are well spread and I know I’m still a long way back. I’m not passing anyone, but no one is passing me either. My breathing is shallow for the first five or six miles and I check myself. I think the wind direction has changed from my practice earlier in the week. It’s certainly lighter, but I sense if anything it’s behind me now, which means it will be in my face on the way back. In these first 20 mins or so I need to understand where I am and what’s happening – and these valuable minutes are passing in a blur. I make a conscious effort to slow my breathing.
I’ve read that all newbies go off too quickly on the bike, and I need to be careful to ensure I can still run a marathon in 112 miles’ time. But if the wind is behind me on the outward leg, I also need to take advantage of it, because that same wind will slow me down on the return leg. Slowly, I get back in control and begin to relax into the ride. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, on one of the most stunning cycling routes of the Ironman circuit. I used to ride much of this road all the time with Keith. The tarmac is smooth and this is a privilege.
The nutrition I’d stupidly left in my food pouch overnight has become a lump of pink goo. I eat most of it, discarding the dirty bits, and I’m getting into a routine for water and nutrition that works for me, with the odd half banana thrown in at aid stations. As the day progresses, the temperature rises to 33C and I’m conscious of the need to stay as hydrated as possible.
The return leg of the first cycle loop is a little tougher with what feels like more inclines and a slight headwind, but I manage it ok. Arriving back at the end of the first loop all I can think is that I have another 56 miles and another three-and-a half hours or more to cycle before I’m back here again. I’m 100% focused on consistency of pace, conserving energy, always trying to keep my heart rate in check and making sure I can deliver myself in good condition to run a marathon when the cycling’s over.
With the final quarter of the course to cycle, there’s a welcome distraction. I see my first ever puff adder, sunning itself on the road. It’s a wonderful sight, the last of the ‘must-see’ South African wildlife on my list that I’d never encountered when we lived there. I feel rewarded, and smile again. It takes some effort to get back into the groove, but every mile completed marks one fewer to ride.
Then the mind tricks are back. This time, the enormity of running a marathon at the end of the ride. I blot out any thoughts of the run by concentrating on the now, keeping my legs going round, dropping down onto my tribars whenever I can for some ‘easy miles’, and focusing on my breathing. The base of my neck between my shoulders is hurting, but it’s not unbearable, and there are no signs of pain, wear or tear from anywhere else. I’m feeling good.
With 16 miles – just over an hour – left to cycle, the battery on my bike computer gives up. I still have my watch, but I feel slightly abandoned by it. It feels like a strange thing to say to myself. But I’m going to have to finish this bike ride on my own.
16:18-16:27 T2 transition
Heading into T2, the bike-to-run transition, and Val, Keith and Claire are waiting to cheer me on again. It’s so hot I’ve ridden for seven-and-a-quarter hours without a toilet break. I feel good, but hungry. I don’t feel like eating but I don’t know where I’m going to get the next few thousand calories from to keep me going. It’s uncharted territory, and I’m thinking, thinking about how I’ll get by. I’m pleased I’ve done quite a few training sessions deliberately fasted, running on empty, to help me at least prepare for this situation. But I’m going to need energy from somewhere.
Changing is easier this time. There’s less to remove, and I feel more with it. I want to get out of transition and get onto the run course. I want to complete this marathon and become an Ironman.
16:27-22:05 The run
Heading off onto the first of four loops, I’m shocked to realise – after all my running training – that I don’t want to run. My head is saying ‘come on, run now’, but my body is saying ‘no, maybe in a minute’. I keep walking. Then I manage to run a little, before walking again.
There are different coloured bands for completing each 6.5 mile loop of the course, and it hits me hard when I notice how many runners have already collected three or even four bands, while I am just about to pick up my first. I’m aiming to complete the marathon in five-and-a-half hours. So they are just four or five hours ahead of me then …
I’m struggling to impose myself on this marathon, and I need structure. Then a plan comes together. The aid stations are quite close together, and I decide I will walk through the length each one of them. Each end of the 6.5 mile loop has an uphill section with a U-turn, followed by a subsequent downhill. I decide to walk all the uphills, and run all the downhills. The main road is divided along much of its length by traffic lights. I decide to run one stretch, and walk the next. Slowly, I begin to get a rhythm going of sorts, and I start to feel comfortable.
At the same time, I decide to take the same things from every aid station every time: Coke, High 5 (an energy drink) and half a banana. I don’t care whether they are repetitive (the repetitiveness gives me comfort). They seem to give me the energy I need and I feel in control.
The sun is setting, the soft yellowy-orange hues giving way first to blue, then quickly to black as dusk arrives. It’s a surreal feeling, being out on the course.
I’m conscious of the thousands of spectators who’ve come out to support us. People can see my name on my bib number, and all around the course there are shouts of encouragement. “Go on David, you’re doing great” and “Great work David”. I start by thanking people and winking my appreciation, but before long I’m too tired to do anything other than lift my thumb without speaking or moving my head. The ones who want to high five are worse, some of them hitting my hand so hard it slows me down to an almost stop. This isn’t like the London marathon or the half-marathons I’ve run where you get energised by high fives – these are energy-depleting.
Seeing Val and all our friends from Port Elizabeth in the crowd gives me a tremendous boost, with just over a lap to go.
Then, with three or four miles to go, I know I’m going to finish. And the mind tricks kick in again. I feel good, I have plenty of energy left, and I know I could speed up. I overcome the urge for heroics. I’ve come a long, long way. I don’t want to do anything silly now to jeopardise finishing. I know if I can carry on at this pace I will finish well within the 15-and-a-half hours I planned, so there’s no need to put this at risk. See it through, bring it home safely, that’s all I need to do.
22:05 The finish
Some 14 hours and 55 mins after I started, the flashing lights and red carpet of the finishing chute are in my sight. Earlier in the week I’d deliberately run the wrong way across the ply board finishing ramp so as not to tempt fate. Earlier this morning, we’d all had a tantalising glimpse of that same finishing chute as we filed onto the beach, and again during T1 and T2 transition.
This time, the real thing is there, stretched out before me.
I expect to feel hugely emotional, but I’m surprised to find that I don’t. All I can think is: that’s my finishing line and I am going to cross it.
As I cross the line, I let out an uncontrollable shriek of joy. And suddenly, two years of planning, a host of practice events and three intensive months of training, and it’s all over.
I feel remarkably good. Nothing aches, but I’m mentally shot, and what happens next becomes a blur. Hugs, kisses and congratulations from my No.1 Ironfan Val and from all our fabulous friends in PE. Medals, t-shirts, towels and blankets. My free Spur burger – presented to me personally by Keith Fourie and his Ironman team, celebrating the fact that I am indeed a ‘man with a taste for life’. Photos. Stretching. Two chocolate recovery drinks. Collecting my bike and being driven home.
After a long day on the course, what will stick with me forever is this: the sun shining on me as I swim; Val kissing me on the beach; seeing my first puff adder on the tarmac; and a huge sense of achievement as I run across the finish line.
It’s been a magical experience. Truly, a beautiful day in the Bay.