hAmberger

I went through my bank statements (long story) and saw a renewal that I didn’t recognise. It was WordPress. Once upon a time I used to write stuff. Armed with the knowledge that I’ve already paid and the amusement at Aussie triathlete – Josh Amberger’s style of short, sharp and pointy race reports…. I am going to catch up and then post more frequently. Why not.

Vattern in June 2017 to date. This may take a few posts. There is the first and second Two Oceans. There is the great and glorious return to Comrades. There is the not-so-great and inglorious return to Iron Man South Africa. There is the Cape Epic. In a woolly cow suit. No joke.

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Vätternrunden 2017

16:00. Borensburg. Dinner table – Casa Sandburg.

The assembled crew discusses the weather in-between mouthfuls of lasagna. This is no ordinary food. It is prepared with love and care and tastes like mouthfuls of energy. Johan and his father point out that in spite of the fact that it is raining this near to the start in Motola, a few kilometers away from their house, there are no more clouds coming in from the southwest. This is a good thing. We are due to start at 19:58 and official sunset will be at 22:30. It will be light enough to see until midnight. In the summer in Sweden it is only totally dark for about 4 hours. We expect sunrise over the Lake Vättern at 03:30. The weather forecast for Saturday looks perfect with clear skies, no wind or rain and 20 degrees from 07:00. The discussion turns to the start time. “If it is raining at the start we will stay in the car and come back and sleep then leave in the morning at 4 or 5” says Johan. This makes perfect sense to me. Swedish summer doesn’t quite seem to agree with my thin South African blood.

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18:00. Borensburg. Driveway – Casa Sandburg.

We have loaded our bikes on the car and are debating how much nutrition to carry. There are regular stops, as you might imagine in a 300km cycle route around the biggest lake in Sweden. We will however only stop for food twice, near Fagerhult at the 140km mark and then again outside Karlsborg when we have 90km to go. Victor and Bjorn opt for camelbacks. I decide to put on my arm warmers and leg warmers and pack a thin jacket that I fold and put into my rear pocket. Victor shakes his head and mutters something about it being summer. We load our helmets, lights, bars, gels etc. and head to the start in Motala a few kilometers away. I suggest that we listen to ABBA in the car on the way to the start. The Swedes are probably not impressed, but they are a very polite people by nature so the conversation turns back to the weather.

 

19:00. Motala. Pre-race briefing – Town Square.

It has stopped raining altogether and the sun has even decided to come out. We collect Tobias, our fifth rider, and exchange pleasantries. We decide that we need bananas and given the number of crazed cyclists in the town, some 20,000 enter this race each year, the local grocer is very accommodating. The plan is to ride in our start group through Gränna where Bjorn’s family is staying and then south to Jönköping, the site of 70.3 Sweden. We will assess how we feel once we round the bottom of the lake and start riding toward Hjo. After that we can be conservative to Karlsborg and then round the top of the lake, where it is 70km to go to the finish. We plan to ride at a speed of approximately 35km per hour average. The circular route around Vättern is not flat but undulating with some small climbs to “wake your legs up” as Victor puts it. He is a Swede of Czech origin and tough as rhino hide so I laugh, nervously.

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19:58. Motala. Start gate. 0 kms

I wonder if I have done enough biking to be rolling off this start, with this plan. IM Brazil is still fresh in my legs and memory and I survived a bout of lurgies directly after the IM race at the end of our trip to Rio. Do I have enough nutrition? Am I overdressed? Underdressed? Daemons. They fade away, one by one as we roll toward Gränna. The pace is comfortable and after a few kilometers the twitchy hands on brake levers and surging settles into a good rhythm. I marvel at my Swedish companions. There is no fanfare or ego. We are going to try to ride 300km in under 9 hours if all goes to plan. Sub 8:30 if conditions play along. Johan leans over and says that 9 hours is simple. 7:00 is something else. I trust that he knows what he is talking about, this will be his tenth Vattern in a row.

 

21:59. Gränna. Nature break – 2:01:12 – 80km

High5 is a great product. I have been using the effervescent tablets and Energy Source powder for 12 months in training and at IM so I am comfortable with it. There is a minor drawback. Dischem was out of the regular Energy Source and only had Energy Source Plus – with Caffeine. On their website they have great nutritional advice for various race distances. They don’t have 300km bike races though. The caffeine does its thing and by Gränna I am wondering why it is that I haven’t learned to relieve myself in the saddle yet. I have chatted to my triathlete buddies and they are all mostly able to do this. I decide not to experiment on this race. Eating tarmac and explaining to a medic why my hands were down my bib shorts is not something I need to do. Fortunately I am not alone  and we pull over at a logical place off the road just after Gränna, much to the amusement of a lady parked at the picnic spot. We stop for 30 seconds and are back in the saddle and on our way to Hjo.

 

23:46. Fagerhult. Stop One – 3:48:40 – 140km

We are on track in terms of our race plan. It is dark now and the bike lights in Sweden are so bright that I am convinced SAAB Aerospace designed them for use as weapons. The stop is welcome. Fresh water, some bananas, rolls and ….. pickles. Yes, pickles. I couldn’t see that well and grabbed a handful of what I thought were quartered baby potatoes. They are surprisingly delicious. The total stop is 1:30s and fast enough to make any triathlete proud. We set out toward Karlsborg with purpose after checking in with one another. Everyone is feeling strong. For the first time in any race I am staying upfront on climbs. Usually I mutter “gorillas to the back” as fellow riders pass me. It must be the pickles I think as I spin uphill next to Johan. He tells me that I should try “Surströmming”. It is fermented herring he explains. He says that you cannot simply open the can with a tin opener because of the pressure; you have to put it into a bucket of water. This is to stop it from spraying everywhere when the can is opened otherwise you will have to move. To another room I ask him? No, he says, possibly to another town. No joke. In a court case in Germany a landlord evicted his tenant for opening a can in the stairwell of a tenement building. The landlord won his case by opening a can in court. The court concluded that it “had convinced itself that the disgusting smell of the fish brine far exceeded the degree that fellow-tenants in the building could be expected to tolerate”.

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02:16. Karlsborg. Stop Two – 6:18:07 – 230km

It is still dark. There is less talking amongst the riders but the pace is honest. We have less than 100km to go having completed 200km in 5h22. I know this feeling. Comrades. Not quite knowing that there is another marathon to come, more like 21km to go. My hamstrings and quadriceps are tight and if I overthink it I can feel my right leg cramping. So I don’t think about it. The stop is very welcome. More pickles and some water to mix my powder. I decide on only one bottle. It may only be a 750g weight saving but at this point every bit of extra weight must be carefully considered. I rationalize that the extra helping of lasagna has been digested and used by now. We set off for the finish. We need to round the top of the lake then turn back toward Motola. 70km left. As we turn back onto the main road I can see the Sun distantly starting to rise over the lake.

 

04:26. Motola. Finish – 8:28:10 – 300km

After riding together for more than 8 hours the kilometers seem to slow as we complete a final series of horseshoe shaped loops near to the lake before heading back into the town. The second must go down as one of the best stretches of riding that I have ever experienced. Away from the cars and main road the route follows a dedicated cycle path through the forest. The roads are empty and mist from the lake is blowing gently over the weary cyclists as we completed the final 10 kilometers of this epic race. Then into Motala, which at 4am is almost completely deserted. We cross the finish in under 8:30 and almost exactly to plan. Bra gjort på att slutföra runden! says the very polite announcer. It isn’t exactly Paul Kaye shouting down the red carpet, but it will certainly go down as one of my more memorable finishes.

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Iron Man Brazil 2017

“Do you know, you would publish more stuff if you just wrote it without trying to be clever or funny?”

Sure. My biggest fan (and critic)! It is one of the many reasons that I love her.

Here are my thoughts on IronMan Brazil 2017. Why write, or as Del pointed out pontificate to write, after each race? I hope that, one day when I am old enough not to raise eyebrows when I walk into a meeting with the Bank, I can look back at the reports and see my evolution from aspirant athlete to Kona slot winner. Mostly I think that I may end up marginally embarrassed and hopefully amused.

“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.” Alain de Botton.

In the weeks leading up to the race I decided to enter the MiWay Ultra in Durban. My mates Rob and Justin had pointed out that it would be more expedient to drink toilet water than swim in the Vaal at Prestige, if I was going for a waterborne disease. Fear of gut parasites and the idea of a road trip and catch up with Rob was enough to convince me. The lead up to the race went well from a training point of view. Disciplined indoor trainer bike sessions, a few long runs and some remarkably effective pool sessions. I felt good and it was only March. I went for a run with Rob down the promenade on the Durban beachfront the day before the race and the conditions were idyllic. Slightly overcast and warm with a light breeze.

My plan was to swim 35min, bike 2h45 and with 5 min transitions this would put me onto a platform to run a 1h45 and come home in 5h15. Tidy. The heat on race day ended up being less than ideal. We should have suspected this when the race organisers notified the athletes that wetsuits were not allowed. The swim in the feared Durban surf was not as bumpy as in years past and I managed 33:04. I transitioned smoothly to the bike in 4min and I settled into a good pace. At this point I must, as ever when I reflect on it, admit that I lost the plot. Head down and grinding big blade I pushed for 2h30. My swim was faster than I expected so in my head I had something in the bank. I knew when I got off the bike that I had made a terrible mistake. 2:38:35 at a 33km/h average. A wave of humid, sticky Durban heat enveloped me as I ran onto the promenade. It sucked the energy out of me but mostly it just broke my spirit. I looked out for Justin and Rob. Rob did the sensible thing and went to find some shade. Justin, who I am convinced, is an alien, or at least has mutant DNA, was also feeling the heat. He would just bring it in on the 5-hour mark. There were thousand yard stares all around. 2:26:56 run. At the end there I was just moving fast enough to save myself the embarrassment of running longer than my bike split. 5:44:42total time – half an hour longer than planned. Lessons: Don’t overcook the bike. Hydrate more effectively. Don’t overcook the bike. Avoid Durban.

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Florianopolis in Santa Caterina province of Brazil is an hour flight from Sao Paulo and has hosted IronMan for more than 10 years. It is the South American Championships and I was looking forward to the conditions, which if I were to believe the hype online would be perfect for breaking records. The town, much like Port Elizabeth, embraces the cult of the M-Dot for the duration of race week.

The weather apps predicted that there would be intermittent showers with 80% chance of rain on Saturday and race-day Sunday. I do not love riding or running in the rain. It is irritating, angry red chafe inducing and usually cold. I felt even worse for Del because she would have to stand in the rain all day to support me. We travelled with South African athletes (Ernst, Darius, Jamie and Dave) who were also racing and who Del adopted immediately. Race check in on Saturday was cold and wet. It became apparent that the venue was prepared for the rain because they had provided helpful bike bags to cover athlete’s bikes once they had been racked. Transition was all indoors and for the first (and logical) time the run and bike bags were on the same hook. Good omens.

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The swim is laid out in an M shape heading out into the ocean for 1 km then back to the beach for a short turn and out again. I hoped to swim 1h05 given my training times in the pool during the months leading up to the race. Age group was used to seed the start, and the 35-39 group was manageable on the beach. As I dived into the surf my goggles were ripped off my face by the passing stroke of a terrified Uruguayan. I fortunately recovered my goggles but the securing clip was lost so I had to tie a knot in the rubber strap while treading water. The Brazilian triathletes are wonderful swimmers and I considered holding onto one of their feet for a while. I also glanced around underwater in an attempt to find a dolphin, or even a large fish. No luck. I would have to do it all myself. I landed on the beach after the first leg and saw Del. I high fived her like a gridiron star and then looked at my HR monitor. 37 min. I was off my 1:05 pace. So leg two was done with more purpose and less Uruguayan. I hit the beach at 1:04.

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T1 was long. If any of you have done the Ultra at Sun City – it’s longer, with more lurching. I panted like a juvenile labrador as I ran from the beach, through a resort gardens and into the change tent. My bike was not where I had left it. This was somewhat disconcerting. We had been warned of the roving gangs of street urchins in Brazil and their tricky ways. After some sign language and what might have been the face of utter desperation one of the volunteers found it neatly parked under a tree. I headed out onto the ride having broken my second PB for the day, longest ever T1 at 6:01. My race plan was to ride a 5h30. Its an out and back, 2 loop route with the turn in Jurere Beach at T1, using mostly the main road between the north and south of the island. I had a nutrition plan that actually involved eating, which I highly recommend as opposed to that persistent light-headed feeling. At the 30km mark I checked in with myself and other than the rain, I felt good. The weather was perfect. There was no chance of overheating and the light shower meant that dehydrating would be difficult, even for someone like me who seems to make it an art form. I saw that I was 8 minutes faster than my race plan so I slowed down. It was very difficult because I felt strong and the route includes a long tunnel which riding through, being dry for even the briefest of moments, is an open invitation to overdo it. I maintained the 34km/h pace back to the turn around point. Time check at 90km = 2:35:33. Danger. I was going too fast. I knew that I had 42km to run and so I gave myself a stern warning. The voice in my head sounded exactly like Roberto Riccardi.

Del will attempt her first full IM next year so I have been trying to explain to her what being out on a bike for 180km feels like. For me at 150km I start hearing the voices. They tell me that I am still overweight. They tell me to keep concentrating or I will end up falling down like the Austrian fellow that saw the traffic cone too late, or the Spanish fellow with the road rash who wasn’t watching out for potholes. My 150km voice said: “Warmonger, my boy, you need to earn the right to ride a sub 5 hour bike in an IM”. True. This was very true. So I sat up in sections and made sure that I was eating and drinking and not getting involved in potholes, or Spaniards for that matter but that’s a subject for another blog. Many strong looking cyclists started to pass me. Many that I considered weaker looking cyclists did too. As it turned out on the day Tim Don biked a 4:01 and into the record books for the fastest ever IM finish time of 7h40. I got into T2 and glanced down at 5h17. I was 13 minutes faster than I planned and I was OK with that.

The run route is 21km out and back followed by a two 10,5km laps around Jurere Beach. I set out at 5:30 pace. The kilometers went by quickly to start and in no time I had run 6. I was feeling good and my plan to run a 4h00 marathon was intact at the turnaround of the 21km. Like the darkness in the Simon and Garfunkle song, my old friend “shuffle” climbed onto my back at 20 km. Given that it was raining and the roads were wet I could hear my feet skid on the tar. I registered my first plus 6:00 min kilometer. So this is it. After having done 6 of these I can tell you with certainty that you are not half way in an IM until you are past 21km into the run. It is where the daemons that are shy and whispering while you ride, are emboldened to stride into the forefront of your mind and begin their assault. If you are not a natural runner it might very well be worse. At 23 kilometers, having collected my first colored hairband and on my way onto the first of to 10.1km laps I heard her shout: “van Breda what are you doing? You are plodding! Shoulders back, chest out!” Words cannot describe how angry I was. “Just you wait lady!” I thought. IMSA 2018 is not that far away (evil laugh). She was right. Naturally. Wives usually always are. I rocked back onto the balls of my feet and got my legs to move under my hips. I saw Erns and Darius on the route and they were running well.

I collected my second band and looked out for Del as I ran past the 32km mark. She smiled this time: “10 km to go and you are going to smash your PB”. Again, she was right. As I turned at the 37km point with 5km to run into the town I flipped my HR monitor to total time from the run time 09:59:15. It would be tremendous to finish in this time on my next outing I thought to myself as I slogged out the final few kilometers. My lapse in concentration during the period around the halfway mark had cost me about 10 minutes and so my marathon time was 4:10:03. My total finish time was 10:42:22. Could I have gone faster on the bike leg? Perhaps. My lesson is to have a plan. Train to the plan and race to the plan. It seems so simple.

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“Kiss me Fat Boy”

IT Clown

Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.

In order to explain how I raced Iron Man Nice in a personal best time I have to go back. All the way back to the last Iron Man event (3,8km/180km/42km) that I competed in, which was Canada in 2014. That day I struggled through a very painful marathon run (5:39:22) and recorded my slowest ever IM time (13:25:56). Even as a novice, at IMSA, I have always managed to get near to 12 hours. In Canada I arrived at the race untrained. It’s not that I didn’t do enough training, it’s that I didn’t do any. I promised myself, because I had plenty of time to think about it on the run, that I would never do an IM race again without putting time into the training, so that I could compete properly. I entered Iron Man France in October 2015. My training plans for the race included the 94.7 Cycle challenge x 2, the Double Century in Swellendam and 11 Global Sun City race in 2015. I also decided to enter the Sun City Ultra in March as a test to see how prepared I was for France.

NOVEMBER 2015

The 11 Global at Sun City is an Olympic distance race (1,5km/40km/10km). I swam at 1:52 pace (31:13) rode at 31km/h average (1:11:47) and ran at 6:40 min/km (1:05:29). Total time 2:52:41. I ran like a pig. Actually in context, pigs run well. I shuffled like a fat kid. It is disconcerting to have most of the field pass you on a 10km run. These things tend not to fix themselves so I went back to the drawing board. In 2014, due to a move to Parktown, I left the comfort of my triathlon club in Bedfordview and so to fix the “fat kid shuffle” I decided to start running more regularly. Mostly running alone.

Del is pragmatic (and very clear) in her insistence that if I ride anywhere other than an indoor trainer it must involve other cyclists. Fortunately the 94.7 Cycle Challenge every year offers ample weekend training rides in preparation with the Cows. In the lead up to the event we entered the Satellite 110km that includes a stiff climb up Hekpoort. It proved to be a 60km time trial for RobbieRic and I after we decided to stop and assist with a puncture, twice. It was a great race and a good warm up for things to come. The 94.7 Cycle Challenge is probably the best day of my sporting year, mostly due to riding with the Apocalypse Cows. This year, in suits (yes as in – Tom Jones, as in – pants and jackets and you can leave your hat on) we didn’t quite manage a sub-3 and depending on who you ask for our final time, we were between two and five minutes over the three hour mark. It was one of the highest rates of attrition, in terms of losing riders, in the history of the Apocalypse madness. The heat definitely took its toll on the riders, as did the attire.

94.7 finish 2015 Did somebody say Tequila? 

Many of the second lappers removed their jackets at the start / finish line after lap 1, a sensible move given the prospect of heading out on another 4 to 5 hour lap. I have been called many names but sensible is not one of them. I nearly killed Graham Brookes on Summit Road with a combination of a spectacular lack of concentration and probably, in hindsight, dehydration. So with a few deep breaths and Graham’s forgiveness the old faithful: Rob, Clinton and newly deputized Guiseppe came upon an ice cream bike (or ICB) that had destroyed its drive train. The sensible thing would have been to abandon it in Randburg. We harnessed the beast to our bikes while Brett Cave, a real soldier, committed to steer the loose canon as we set off with about 50km to get it home. The ICB could not pedal and so it also could not brake, given that the mechanism of reverse pedaling is the brake. Uphill was tough, downhill was dangerous. We held on for dear life, using our bodies and caliper brakes to try and slow down an 80kg dead weight. Giuseppe was a casualty down the massive decent on Cedar Road. By casualty I mean that after hitting the deck at about 40km/h he got up, ate a few gummy bears and rode on to the finish. We later found out that he had torn ligaments in his shoulder. He pushed the bike for 15km in that state. When Chuck Norris needs a stunt double – I know a guy.

94 finish 2015 d Team Avendurance. We are all grinning because we were delirious and dehydrated. 

We have never been so close to the cut off. We had to forgo dancing on the various sound stages at the water stops and I didn’t get to “Gangnam Style” with Amore. I am sure that she was devastated. We brought the Avendurance ICB home. The significance of this moment, nearly a year later, is that we found out that it was Dalene Mulley’s sponsorship when we arrived at the finish. It has been 6 months since her untimely exit from this planet and from our lives. I am typing this with a massive lump in my throat, clenched teeth and blurry eyes. You have left such a massive hole in our lives Dalene Mulley. I often think of you and Lisa and like to imagine that the two of you are riding the trails together in Heaven.

 Del and D 2015

The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.

The event the weekend after the 94.7 is usually the Coronation Double Century. Del and I headed off to the fair Cape, with the Jeppe team, to conquer the 201km race in what would hopefully be sub-7 hours. The conditions have been perfect for the past two years so we were due some inclement weather. We set off in the rain. In 2014 I overheated, spewed partially digested Gu and a bacon sandwich on the road and almost passed out in a field of cacti. I therefore went with UV sleeves and a shirt. No vest, no jacket. The pace was good for the first quarter of the race and we didn’t have any mechanicals. That was a first. The “hole in the wall” between Montague and Ashton was close to something that Steven Spielberg could have imagined as Omaha beach when directing Saving Private Ryan. Slower cyclists bunching, road works, wet weather, faster cyclists overtaking, semi-link trailers hooting, and motorists pushing in due to there being no road closure. It was carnage. The fact that we all made it through unharmed was a miracle. There were a few near misses and Al used some choice language that still makes me smile, a year later. At the Ashton stop we regrouped and looking at the time to that point we would need to ride very well to finish in sub-7 hours. I marveled at the composure and sensibility of the core group of cyclists that I have had the privilege of riding with over the past three years at this event. Alan, Graeme, Richard, Rob and Hershel motored through the second half of the race, in some difficult, wet and cold conditions. A highlight was the last 15km into Swellendam. 40km/h average easily. We crossed the line in 6:58. Job done.

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DC finishers 2015 – it was polite enough to stop raining for a few minutes. 

So began a long summer of contemplation and solo training, Sun City Ultra at the end of March and IM France at the beginning of June. In the absence of a better plan I started running around Westcliffe with its steps and hills. I realized that I needed a plan. Not philosophically speaking, I actually needed a spreadsheet with a training program on it. Using a training program from 2012, courtesy of Wayne Keet with the tweaking of Rob Riccardi and Rob Kellock, I counted the weeks to France and modified the program accordingly. It would start out easy and ramp up every week until the week before the race. I would get one chance to test race nutrition and pacing at the Sun City Ultra in March. I also finally did something about what has always been the “elephant in the gym” – my 100kg frame. No bread, no wine, no pastries (I really love pastries – I am from Dutch stock and it seems mostly unnatural to forgo rusks, cinnamon cookies and croissant for anything, let alone a race in the heart of French vacationland).

 2016 – Adios Fat Boy. 

It was relatively simple: four run, four swim and four bike sessions per week. Long run (12 – 25km) on Tuesday, long bike on Sunday (120-150km) and long swim (3-4km) on Friday. I did focused sessions (intervals etc.) on the days in-between. I kept to my eating plan (mostly…), exercised some portion control and I tried to get enough sleep. March was upon me sooner than I would have liked and when I left the office on the Thursday before the Sun City Ultra I expected 5 hours 30minutes at the very minimum. I had even flirted with the idea that I could achieve my personal best or “PB” if you are a tri-nerd. My PB for the ultra distance (1,9km/90km/21km) is 4:49. The Olympic distance race at the same venue is one of my favourites and in spite of the warnings from Justin, an ultra distance machine who frequently races the half distance in under five hours; I underestimated the difficulty of the run. That is not to say that I could by this point actually run properly, conditions aside, as detailed several times already. The run route is challenging and T1 (Swim to Bike) is two hundred (thousand) meters from the water to the tent, adding time to an already challenging bike transition through the Gary Player Country Club.

The swim leg went poorly (40:15) at 1:51 pace. I sit back and think of reasons and I cannot understand why. Perhaps the double lap of the Sun City dam instead of a single in order to get to 1,9km? T1 was 04:52 because of the hike from the water to the transition area. I settled into a good pace on the bike leg and rode 2:43:10 for the 90km at 33km/h average. T2 was 31s. Speedy! Unfortunately the speediest thing that happened to those running shoes that morning. Call it a bogey, monkey on my back or what you may, the run part of  a triathlon is my undoing. I was leaner than ever, fitter than ever and I have a steely determination when racing. So the 2:25:50 was not as much a of a disappointment as a puzzle. I ran the first 10.5km lap in 1:18 and the second in 1:08. I got lost on the path around the golf coarse, so focused was I on keeping a decent pace. For the first time in any race I let my mind weaken after my “where’s Waldo” moment. I had defaulted to shuffling. 10.5km of fat kid shuffle. 5:54:30 total time. My family had made the trip to Sun City for the weekend. I am glad that they were there. They were very nice about the fact that I had kept them waiting for 40 minutes longer than necessary. Caleb even managed to appropriate a frisbee and might have learned how to use it in the time that it took me to finish. I stored the disappointed feeling. Ammunition. I would need it as I returned to the drawing board before Nice.

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This is Yesenia. She can run fast but also tends to get distracted. 

I can bore you with an exposition of the function of short and long chain carbohydrates, hydration and the evils of red wine. I will not. Instead I will say that I set to training with renewed purpose and in earnest. The lead up to the race was perfect. It involved a flight to Nice, via Dubai, two weeks before race day to watch the 2016 Formula One Grand Prix in Monaco. In the week leading up to the race I was able to run up and down the Avenue Des Anglais. I was running sub-five minutes per kilometer on easy training runs. Perhaps it is that I feel so at home in France? Perhaps it was that Del and I had enjoyed a wonderful week away from the stresses of work? Perhaps it was the opportunity to watch the most celebrated race on the Formula One calendar with a F1 guru and man that I admire and respect and haven’t acknowledged for many years. Whatever the reason I had confidence, that I had not felt for some time.

W&Q 2016

Dad and I (trying to look European) chatting on the Avenue Des Anglais.

In preparation for an endurance event, like Iron Man, you cannot underestimate the small details running up to race morning. I am very fortunate to have an amazing wife. She was calm when I began to panic as my rented race wheels didn’t fit on my bike and I could not go on a training ride as I had planned. She made sure that I stayed off my feet and avoided the draft beers that my South African triathlete friends were liberally consuming. I put my wetsuit on and went for a warm up swim on race morning. The water was cold but refreshing. The swim requires “self-seeding” and as with all races there were athletes that seeded themselves sensibly and then those who perhaps seed themselves in an aspirational manner. I went into the 1:10 group. My heart rate was under control and I reminded myself that there was absolutely no need to “red-line” this early in the day. I swam 1:08:30 (1:42 min / 100m). I pride myself on speedy transitions but coming out of the water and up the ramp to the transition area from the pebble-strewn beach I slipped and hit my head. T1 is a blur (7m22) although I made it out wearing my helmet and having put on a long sleeve top.

IMFR 2016Del and I in front of a beach cafe after I finally got my bike to work

It turned out to be a good use of time because the weather closed in and after we had climbed up and out of the City of Nice and into the mountains past the quaint and picturesque town of Vance the temperature began to drop significantly. The cycle route is a single lap 180km circuit through the French countryside and up some of the foothills of the Alps. I love cycling and cycling in Europe, among European cyclists who are savvy and disciplined, was an absolute pleasure. The first 100 km of the cycle route is tough. 20km of climbing is not a joke and on a time trial bike it is heavy going. On the climb I momentarily considered that I might have made a mistake in choosing my time trial bike and not a road bike for this race. Several athletes on road bikes, fitted with bigger cassettes, passed me on the climb. Fortunately I did not panic and I had set a target in my mind to ride 6 hours for the 180km. I paced myself, eating and drinking regularly while taking the opportunity to appreciate the magnificent views with a plan to save my energy for the marathon that was to come. My bike time was 5:59:09, exactly as planned. T2 was better than that first, 3:14.

Del was waiting at the exit of the bike-to-run transition and it was wonderful to see her. Apart from supporting me she also encouraged and cheered on the South African contingent of Gareth, Andrew, Catherine, Dustin and Chris. She is a wonderful athlete and so makes a really good supporter of a triathlon. At any point on the run she could tell me my run time as well as where all of my friends were on the route. The run route is four laps of 10km along the perfectly flat beachfront. As I ventured onto the run route I could feel my legs adapting from cycle to run – jelly. Seeing as though the rest of my day had worked out to plan I was feeling confident. I was going to run the entire way, and not walk / run, at a sub-6 minute per kilometre pace and only pause for ten steps past each refreshment table. I would drink only water for 20km and then switch to Cola as the lactic acid came calling. The tables were positioned at every 2km on the route. As I ran the first kilometer I could feel that I had some additional energy and made the decision to push and run a bit faster for the first 5km. I ran it at 5:13min per km. As I passed Del she shouted at me to slow down. No use walking the last half of the marathon because for the first time in a Iron Man triathlon I wasn’t shuffling at the start.

IMFR 2016 FThats me. Running, not shuffling. 

I executed my running plan perfectly. I focused on leaning my upper body forward, keeping my hips stable, arms relaxed and my chest open and upright. I glanced at my HR monitor regularly to make sure that I was keeping a consistent pace. Consistency was what I was aiming for. As I rounded the final turn, near the Nice airport with 5km to go, I could calculate that a 4 hour marathon was within my reach. With two kilometers to go I pushed myself to go faster. I thought about the final scene in IT (your mind plays trick on you after a few hours of exercise).

I crossed the line in 4:01:49.  Finish time 11:16:49

“We were going so fast, we beat the devil. I don’t know if I can go that fast again. Hold on.” 

Iron Man Brazil – 2017.

*All quotes are from Stephen King’s IT. 

 

UBER – Etiquette

In 2016 I  decided to get rid of my car. I chose Uber and the Gautrain to get around JHB. So here are some observations as to the way to use uber in South Africa :

  1. You always sit in the front . This is because uber is a ride share. It is not a taxi. Old people – it is not a taxi. The uber drivers also now have to be registered as metered taxi’s so if you sit in the back there is more chance that you will be pulled over by JMPD / EMPD and his vehicle will be impounded. So sit in the front – take a look at your drivers name and remember it. At a stop tell the cop that your mate Sizwe is dropping you off -what is Uber?
  2. Be polite. Again, it isn’t a taxi. Did you know that as much as you get to rate your driver, he gets to rate you. If you are a highly rated rider you don’t wait for an Uber. if you are a 2 or 3 out of 5 you are in for a bit of a wait. Its really democratic that way.
  3. Help to navigate. Google Maps and Wayz are great, but not nearly as good as local knowledge of the area. Both GPS programs make use of algorithms that determine the fastest route and sometimes the dynamics on the route change while you are driving.So be patient and assist.
  4. Chat to the driver. He or she is a wealth of information and also interesting insights into your city. Uber is public transport and there is nothing better than relaxing and chatting to the driver about various issues or political, social or local interest.
  5. Uber works out at about R7,50 per km. If you register for a business account Uber will also send you a breakdown of every trip, cost, driver and destination. If you are in a similar game to me then this means you can expense every trip. So clients pay for uber when I move. I don’t need to think of go books, substantiating AA rates, claims etc.
  6. Support the Uber. Metered Taxi’s are sharks. The same trip that take me from Rosebank to Westcliff costs R100 in a metered taxi. No wonder these guys are going out of business. This is a R40 Uber.
  7. The UberX is charged at a base fee of R20, Time and distance.
  8. Here are some trips and costs for interest :
    1. Airport from Westcliff – R270.00
    2. Hillcrest (KZN) to King Shaka Airport – R415.00
    3. Rhodesfield Gautrain Station to Anderbolt near Barloworld – R140.00
    4. Bedfordview to Westcliff – R215.00
    5. Rosebank Gautrain Station to Westcliff – R45.00

I hear, this evening, that Uber vehicles have been impounded on Grayston and that at the airport the towing vans have the knives out. Think about this Dept. of Transport – you have never shut down minibus taxis? You have never cared that metered taxi’s overcharge tourists and vehicles are in an awful condition. Do everyone a favour and streamline the application process that legitimises Uber as a public transport system.

 

Coronation DC 2014

Coronation Double Century 2014

The Double Century or “DC” is a highlight of the South African road-riding calendar. It is a 200km single stage team race starting in Swellendam and progressing up the Trudaux pass, winding through breathtaking scenery that includes premier vineyards and I am reliably informed the home of the dried fruit industry in Montague, returning to Swellendam via three rather challenging hills. Unlike the individually seeded races that would place stronger riders in the early start group the DC teams of 12 are seeded according to their previous finish time if they have previously competed or slowest to fastest to simplify the explanation. There is a cumpulsory stop, in Ashton, at 120km into the race, Teams are allowed a maximum of 30 minutes in the support area where they can refuel and rest with the assistance of a team support vehicle. These 30 minutes are not calculated into the overall time. This year, due to the number of teams that had entered, the vehicle could not follow behind the participants to the finish. A second stop, in Bonnyvale, with the same rules but half the time at 15 minutes, was introduced.

DC 2014

In 2013 I was fortunate enough to be invited to ride with the Jeppe Quondum team and we managed a respectable 07h20 that included two punctures, a broken spoke and a broken chain. We estimated that we had lost approximately 20 minutes to the mechanical issues. 2014 was therefore an opportunity to ride under seven hours and compete, once again in what must be one of the most beautiful cycle races in the world.

The DC is one week after the 94.7 Cycle Challenge, so logistics and recovery are a challenge. It is a Saturday and not Sunday race so for the working sportsman Friday, a day of precious leave, must be offered up to the cycling gods so that the Johannesburg based team can fly to Cape Town and drive to Swellendam to register, check bicycles, have dinner and then pretend to sleep for a few hours before the race starts. There is naturally no accommodation to be had for a team of 12 plus 12 (Jeppe had two teams this year) in Swellendam so we stayed in Montegue. Our 2013 performance meant that we were started 50 minutes later than the dawn start of Jeppe B. It still didn’t help me, notorious for only waking up 30 minutes after the ride has started. The logistics of staying 30km away from the start line and having to think about nutrition, warm clothing and clothes to change into at the finish is all too much. I ended up getting myself into the vehicle with my cleats and helmet in the correct cycling kit. I took it as a win.

DC finishers 2014

The thought of a second Jeppe team that had left nearly an hour earlier had all of the makings of a greyhound race, with the rabbit motoring along ahead. We set off and a comfortable pace. The team – Alan, Pat, David, Mike, Justin, Rob, Declan, Richard and I. going through 30km the horrible snap of carbon spelled certain disaster for someone. A spoke gave way on the rear wheel of Mike’s bike. It is a carbon wheel so although we all put brave faces on we silently knew that it was doomed to disintegrate, eventually. Had we been able to ride gingerly to the support vehicle it would not have been as agonizing, but with Tredaue pass ahead the thought of a 60-80km per hour decent on the other side would dissuade even the craziest of cyclists (read me) to pull off. Mike did an astounding job of keeping it together up the pass and near the first decent the wheel took the shape of a developing market currency.

It was on this particular climb that I began to notice my body temperature. Rob starting pushing and I was very thankful. It was tough going. I ended up cresting and then blowing through the stop at the top to try and take advantage of the momentum and cycle hard into the undulating hills that lead to Montague. I go downhill fast and we lost half the bunch this way. Still, I was hopeful that I would be able to keep the momentum into Ashton and beyond.

At the first long stop I was hallucinating. I was hot, fatigued and could not imagine the next 90km that included the 3 sisters at the end. I started hyperventilating at the thought. I ate a bacon sandwich. A bit of a tradition on this ride, I remounted my bike with the crew and set off again. We got into an Investec bunch early on. Alan and the strong fellows pulled ahead. One of the bankers hit the tarmac at 60km/h. It was ugly. I avoided it by seconds and regrouped with Jeppe. It was not going well. I started heaving. The first bit of bacon sandwich escaped in a rather civilized way but the 32GI behind it had other ideas. Al was trying to drag me back into the bunch and I was having none of it. The Jeppe Boys are way to good to drop a fellow cyclist and go so I did what I considered necessary and rode into the middle of a field and stopped. Alan took a look back at me projectile vomiting and headed put to the next stop at Bonnyvale. When he got to the vehicle he told Del to alert a medic. I was done.

DC halfway 2014

I am a stubborn fellow. I managed to cycle through to the next stop and fortunately for me Dr. Selikson had a look. Rehydrate and the removal of my under armor vest. Moron. I had dehydrated. I took a few gulps of air, some more rehydrate and then get back on the bike. I headed out toward the last 40km with a view to catch Jeppe B. I saw them on the horizon as I crested the third and final climb. Riding into Swellendam just behind them I had come back from the dead and learned some important lessons about the race. On to 2015.

For Delene Mulley

Delene was a friend. She was a sister. She was a crazy chick. She got diagnosed with stage 2 ductal invasive breast cancer – similar to Del. She fought the fight. When Del called three weeks ago and told me that Delene was gone I could not believe it. Neither could she. We miss her so much. This is what Del said at her memorial service. I will always remember riding up Steyn City pushing Delene and bawling my eyes out at the image of Lisa, who we lost a year earlier, on her back. I cannot bear to even bring myself to think about what Mr. and Mrs Mulley must be going through. I get tearful just thinking about it.

In memory of Delene (4 January 1979 – 18 February 2016)

[Read at her memorial service]

Last week Monday, Delene placed the following post on Facebook: “Some days you have to be fucking brave. Today is one of those days”. This accurately describes how I feel today.

One thing is certain: Delene had presence. You could feel when she entered the room long before you looked up and saw the huge smile and her love came bounding towards you. She had an abundance of energy that was profound and addictive. As another post on Facebook accurately described: She was tired of trying to cram her sparkly star-shaped self into society’s beige square holes. She chose to embrace her ridiculous awesomeness and shine like the freaking supernova she was meant to be.

The unintended consequence of this is that she leaves a hole… a gap. There may be a gap in your everyday, a gap in your weekend or a gap next to you where her bike is meant to be. There will be a gap at the next cow function, at the next cow party and at the next Rent-a-Cow. There is a gap on my contact list. There is a gap in my Whattsapp conversations. There is a gap where quirky humour use to be. There is a gap in my Facebook feed. There is a gap where stubbornness used to reside. There is a gap where her love once lived.

When sharing the story of Delene with someone this week, they shared an amazing insight. People die twice in this world. They die on the day that they die, and then they die again on the day that the last person who remembers them dies. Therefore, a legacy will only live as long as the memory of the last person that remembers you.

If we think about legacy like this, then her legacy is not what we do to honour her memory, but what we will be that honours her. Will we choose to be an inspiration, or a little more crazy? Maybe next time you will choose to not give up no matter what is thrown at you. Choose to be strong in any circumstance, to find more humour, to make friends more easily. Maybe you will choose to love Border Collies or to even rescue a Border Collie. Perhaps even you will choose to be selfless and always put others ahead of yourself. Maybe you will choose to never take one moment for granted and take more photographs and make more memories. Will you choose to enter races for everyone because they are disorganised, or pick up an army full of race packs? Perhaps you will wear a tutu so that people can ask why and you can tell them about the bravery of kids with cancer and the awesome work that CHOC does. Maybe you will choose to love differently and in abundance.

For me, this is the true creation of a legacy. Of her legacy. The impact will live far beyond the lives of everyone here.

As a final thought on the continuing of her legacy, I take a line from a song I heard on the radio this morning:

We can make it into something beautiful,

Yeah, we don’t have to try.

We can make it into something wonderful,

We’ll never say goodbye.

Del and Dalene 2014

94.7 Cycle Challenge 2014

Momentum 94.7 Cycle Challenge 2014

The 2014 race was subject to a new route. Waterfall Estate has been developed to the point where it is no longer possible to cater for the madness that is this 32 000 participant Momentum Cycle Challenge. The start venue is now River Sands on the other side of Steyn City. This means that the start of the race is now much more challenging, putting Summit Road and the heartbreak hill near to the beginning of the race with the N14 out and the infamous Cedar Road hill to be navigated at the end.

Did I forget to mention that we would be doing this route twice, dressed in blue and red spandex with yellow wigs? How silly of me!

 Thor 2014

For the past 5 years I have completed the 94.7 Cycle Challenge in aid of Children’s Haematology Oncology Clinics (CHOC) http://www.choc.org.za/about/who-we-are.html . The raising of funds for this charity is coordinated through an organisation called The Cows. This name is derived from the first suits (the only 8 that matched were cow suits) that the first 8 volunteers wore in 2009. Since the initial R288, 000 that those 8 raised the organisation, guided by the first cows as a committee of 8 that loosely coordinate the fundraising, the organisation has become the largest single fundraising initiative at the 94.7 Cycle Challenge event.  The Cows have contributed in excess of R20m to CHOC. The money that is raised goes directly into projects that benefit children and families of the children that are suffering from cancer. Here are some of the things that have been done with the money (and for fun some of the costumes that have been dreamed up by Mr. Apocalypse Riccardi):

2010 – The Project: The upgrade and renovation of the pediatric oncology wards at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Cows: 270. Funds Raised: R3,6m.

2011 – The Project: Improving the wards at the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital as well as promoting awareness of childhood cancer by sending CHOC Cow Awareness vans to outlying areas to educate medical staff on early warning symptoms. Cows: 350. Funds Raised: R3,7m.

2012 – The year of the Elvis Suits. The Projects: To build a house in the Eastern Cape to act as the home away from home for the children being treated for cancer and their families. Promoting awareness of childhood cancer by sending a CHOC Cow awareness vehicle with social work support to outlying areas to educate medical staff on the early warning signs of childhood cancer, Paediatric cancer research Cows: Over 400. Funds Raised: R4.2m.

Sweeper 2012

2013 – The year of the Hells Angels Suits. The Projects: Support for the CHOC Bergvliet House where bone-marrow transplant patients are housed for up to 9 months because of the risk of infection. Support for the new CHOC House on East London, Social work support to the children affected by cancer in Johannesburg, East London and Bloemfontein Cows: 502. Funds Raised: R3,24m

sweeper 2013

2014 – The Projects:  Accommodation – The CHOC Lodge, Durban; CHOC Houses Saxonwold, Diepkloof and Pretoria Psychosocial Support – Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Free State. Programme Coordinator – Western Cape and Namakwa Region. Programme vehicle – CHOC Kalahari Cows: over 500. Funds Raised: R4,2 m

So for a great cause I am happy to suffer through nearly 200km of riding. This usually takes 9-10 hours. This year was no exception as we set off just after dawn dressed as the collective “Thor”. The bunch was big and difficult to keep together. The change of route means that the hardest part of this race was the first 40km, to the top of Joe Slovo drive. None of us had ever done the route and there were a few that needed a gentle nudge up the hills in the first few kilometers. That said, the race is always completed in the greatest of spirits and with camaraderie that would make Clint Eastwood in his directors chair jealous. Gung Ho and green berets are mandatory. A spoonful of cement in your morning coffee is encouraged. Weakness is weeded out in the harshest terms.

Del and W 2014

We did not manage to break that magic 3-hour mark, arriving in 10 minutes after the hour. Importantly we did manage to get all of our number across the line in a bunch finish. After only the briefest of stops after lap 1, that has in the past seen us rubbing shoulders with Tour de France champions in the making and launched the careers of cycling pros and comedians alike, we were off for lap 2.

Del and W lap 1 2014

This is a party lap. Seeing spandex clad superhero’s ride up alongside ice cream bicycles and teams of riders when the main herd of Choc Cows are over halfway into the race has a major effect on morale (that and the Tequila) and in selected cases also on sobriety. This year I abandoned my post as the apocalypse cow sweeper and went in search of Del, who was riding her first cycle race after her defeat of Cancer the year before. She was riding with Dalene ,“Dad” Mulley and her crew. After finding them at the top of Jan Smuts I settled in for what I thought would be a relaxed cycle to the finish. I should have remembered that when in Apocalypse kit there is no such thing. At the bottom of the Republic Road hill I found an Ice Cream Bike with a tired looking crew.

Del tequila 2014

I was still feeling strong, having recovered for 20 km, and pulled it up the hill and on into Randburg. The crew seemed to have gathered themselves and so we made good time through to Witkoppen and then up the big hill. We carried on, making good time, until Ceder Road. The downhill is far more dangerous than the uphill and I rode alongside until the juggernaut slowed and then hitched it up to my seat post and began peddling for dear life. I cannot confess to being an expert on Montessori schools but the one near the top of that climb has certainly heard its share of colorful language.

It is just about at this point that two energetic mountain bikers grabbed the handles of the ice cream bike and pushed it at warp speed up the rest of the hill and then on to the finish. Unfortunately for my read derailleur the gravitational effect of a 60 kg ice cream bike plus two fresh sets of legs proved too much for it and I was forced to remove it and reduce my bicycle to a single speed. I was lured, by this incident, into believing that the excitement for the day was over. I was wrong. I rode into Steyn City with Dalene and pushed her gently up one or two of the final climbs. I was wholly unprepared for the downhill through the main gates that sweeps around a sizeable traffic circle.

I heard her say, “I don’t have breaks”. My ears registered this, but I had not yet engaged my brain to contemplate the ramifications. Dalene hit the traffic circle at about 30km/h. For a moment, as she lifted off and pirouetted gracefully through the air, time stood still. Then it sped up, all at once and Dalene hit the ground. Fortunately the only damage was that sustained by her tyres, that both burst cheekily as she navigated them into the concrete curb. They were speedily repaired by the expert hands that required any distraction, certainly from thinking about what might have been had one or two of the trees on the circle been more mature or positioned mere degrees either side of her crash landing.

Del and Dalene 2014

The day ended, late, in the Cows hospitality area drinking very cold beer nursing very warm bodies. It is however, hands down, the best ride of the year.

Iron Man Canada 2014

Iron Man Canada – Whistler Village – British Columbia – 27 July 2014

Overall Race statistics – 1869 participants, 514 Women, 1355 Men, Average Time: 13:26:40

Swim Start.jpg

The swim, in Lake Alta, a glacial lake in Rainbow Park, is a few miles out of Whistler Village. The conditions on the morning of the race were the most perfect that I have experienced, being used to swimming in the sea. The cool, clear water with no current or swell was waiting patiently for 1900 bodies to thrash it into frenzy in the pursuit of Iron Man glory. I decided to switch to a sleeveless wetsuit for Iron Man South Africa in 2014 and despite it being 10 degrees I was comfortable in the water. As the gun went I remembered my friend Robbie “fishman” Ric’s words and looked for a suitable pair of feet to follow. It was a wet start so I couldn’t size them up on the beach and had to judge speed by the flip-flap of the wet suited legs. I started to find a rhythm and got comfortable.

It is a two-lap swim so there are a few buoys to factor in. Around the first turn my goggles took a direct hit. A stray foot removed them from my face and snapped one of the elastics. I fumbled. I panicked and I lost them. Not a great start and with approximately 3km to go, and I had to get my head back into the race as soon as possible. If it were the sea things would have been far more uncomfortable. I finished the swim in 01:16:25 (724th). That is 2:00/100 pace which is about 0:25/100 slower than I am capable of swimming.

Blurry eyed I raced through transition, with ride bags laid out on the riverbank and not hung up on a rack, as fast as I could. As if going through transition in less than 3 minutes would win back the 16min that I had left floating behind me. I was through in 02:15. I had planned for a 06:30 bike. I knew that I wasn’t at peak fitness but renting Zipp Firecrest 404 / 808 wheel set combination from RaceWheels earlier in the week got me thinking that perhaps I could go faster.

Zipps.jpg

The bike route is majestic. It is a one-loop 180km ride mostly along the Sea-to-Sky highway that runs from Vancouver into the heart of British Columbia bringing skiers out to the mountains. From the lake I got into a comfortable gear and rode conservatively, knowing that there was a steep climb to Callaghan Valley. The first climb starts at the 22 km mark and lasts 15 km with an elevation gain of 350 m and a grade at its steepest of between 9 and 13%. It is followed by a long and fast decent that then levels off from the 45 km mark to the 95 km as you ride into the town of Pemberton. There is a fast and flat 40 km out and back from Pemberton and then its uphill from 140km all the way home. I looked at my average while riding back to the bottom of the final 40km climb and to my surprise it was well over 30km/h. I checked my Garmin again to make sure but I was at 04:50. Thoughts of a sub-six-hour bike started popping into my head.

I laugh, in hindsight, at the fact that I forgot how I came by that average. Downhill’s will do that. To say that I slogged up those 13% gradient inclines on the way home would be kind to me. At least I didn’t get off and push although I think at times it would have been faster. I finished the bike 06:22:54 giving me a position of 685 out of 1869 with a 28.21 km/h average.

T2 was not slick. I was a bit dazed and having decided to leave my normal nutrition in JHB and “graze off the sponsored stuff on the route” I was also trying to think about what to eat before the run. I try to steer away from Coke until I absolutely have to and the GuBrew that was at the stops was just not doing it. 5:02 transition onto the run. It was the first time that I got to see Del so I stopped just after transition to say hi and with an overall time of 07:46:36 it was possible, with a tidy run, to pull off a12 hour finish. I was feeling stronger as I went and the first few km were very pleasant.

The run is two loops of 21.1km through Whistler Village and onto a hiking trail (the Valley Trail) that takes the athletes past Lost Lake and Green Lake before looping back to the Village. There is a generous downhill from the 2km to the 8km mark followed by sharp hills for 8km up to the 18km mark with a 60m climb for the final 4km. Then repeat. The run route takes the athlete through forest and dirt footpaths with the occasional water crossing. I had hoped to run 04:40 for the distance. My legs had one or two other ideas and for the first time in my short Iron Man career I walked. It felt glorious. The scenery on this race is something to behold and I cannot recommend it in strong enough terms for all those looking for a holiday IM race.

The Canadians are a special bunch. The encouragement and support from the spectators, who did not stop partying until the very last athlete was home, was brilliant. Del, not being one to watch from the sidelines, took up a volunteer position on the run route as a marshal and chatted to the friendly athletes and organizing staff. I chatted to two ladies from Southern California who had driven up for the weekend to volunteer and assist the organizers of the race. That made my 05:39:22 seem a bit more bearable. My 8km/h average run meant that my overall time was 13:25:58 placing me 997 out of 1869 entrants. Very average performance but an above average race with scenery to slow down for. Well that is my excuse anyway. The Maple Leaf finisher medal is also pretty special.

Finisher

Writing, again

Writing table

I have composed several blogs over the past 12 months, I have not managed to sit down and write any of them. I was alarmed to see that I have not troubled WordPress with my ramblings for this extended period.

I am sitting at the dining room table of a magnificent home on the Port Alfred Marina that we have rented for the Christmas holiday and am reading some of my published material. I have spotted several spelling errors and a few clumsily worded sentences. The thinking isn’t bad, keeping in mind how objective a judge on such matters I am, but there is certain “rustiness” about the way that they are written. I am reminded of the advice that all writers get from their mentors and that is to write frequently and also to read with an insatiable appetite. The English language is far too complex to master it and so we must constantly learn through reading it in order to improve at writing.

So I intend spending this holiday reading, writing and mountain biking. I might also drink wine and teach Caleb how to swim in the Marina although certainly not in that order. My quest for writing glory has been augmented by this very useful article that I came across in Time magazine written by Eric Barker. I subscribe to his Blog and if you want sensible advice on just about any topic, but certainly writing, its worth looking at http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2014/11/how-to-be-a-better-writer/

Here is the article:

Good writing is often looked at as an art and, frankly, that can be intimidating. No need to worry. There are rules — even science — behind writing well.

Our brain works a particular way; so what rules do we need to know to write the way the brain best understands? To find out the answer I gave Steven Pinker a call. Steven is a cognitive scientist and linguist at Harvard. Steven was recently ranked as one of the top 100 most eminent psychologists of the modern era.

SUMMARY (In case you are reading this on a phone and only have a few minutes) 

Here are six of Steven’s tips for good writing:

  • Be visual and conversational. Be concrete, make your reader see and stop trying to impress.
  • Beware “the curse of knowledge.” Have someone read your work and tell you if it makes sense. Your own brain cannot be trusted.
  • Don’t bury the lead. Clarity beats suspense. If they don’t know what it’s about they can’t follow along.
  • You don’t have to play by the rules, but try. If you play it straight 99% of the time, that 1% will really shine.
  • Read Read Read. The English language is too complex to learn from one book. Never stop learning.
  • Good writing means revising. Never hit “send” or “print” without reviewing your work — preferably multiple times.

1) Be Visual And Conversational

One third of the human brain is dedicated to vision. So trying to make the reader “see” is a good goal and being concrete has huge effects. We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from “I think I understand ” to “I understand,” we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images…

 You also want to be conversational. Too many people are trying to impress others and sound smart. And research shows that trying to sound smart actually makes you look stupid:

…a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1–3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence.

Research shows things that are easy for our brain to process feel more true than concepts that require work.

Think of the writer as an equal. If you’re trying to impress, at best you will make the reader feel dumb. And nobody likes to feel dumb.

Classic writing with this assumption of equality between a writer and reader makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.

Imagine you’re telling a friend who is as smart as you are something they don’t know.

Here’s Steven:

…imagine that you are in a conversation with a reader who is as competent as you are, but happens not to know some things that you know. And you orient the reader so that they can see something in the world with their own eyes that you have noticed, but they have not yet noticed… A symmetry between reader and writer. A conversational, informal style. A determination to be visual and concrete. An excitement about showing the reader something in the world that the reader can see for themselves, rather than concentrating on the activity of the people who have studied that thing.

Those two simple things — be visual and conversational — can instantly take your writing to the next level. But they’re not the #1 obstacle you face. What’s the biggest reason your writing doesn’t shimmer and shine? Here’s where we get into some very interesting cognitive science.

2) Beware “The Curse Of Knowledge”

The main reason your writing isn’t clear is not your fault at all. Seriously, your brain isn’t wired to write well. It’s actually working against you. Once you know something you assume others do too. It’s human nature. And that leads to bad writing.

Here’s Steven:

…another bit of cognitive science that is highly relevant is a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge.” Namely, the inability that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we do know. And that has been studied in various guises in the psychological literature. People assume that the words that they know are common knowledge. That the facts that they know are universally known… the writer doesn’t stop to think what the reader doesn’t know. Ever hear someone say, “Explain it to me like I’m 5 years old”? That’s an attempt to get around the curse of knowledge.

So what’s the best way to avoid the number one problem in writing? Do what writers have done forever:

Have someone else read your work and tell you if it makes sense to them. Show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. This sounds banal but is in fact profound. Social psychologists have found that we are overconfident, sometimes to the point of delusion, about our ability to infer what other people think, even the people who are closest to us. Only when we ask those people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them. That’s why professional writers have editors… Your reviewers needn’t even be a representative sample of your intended audience. Often it’s enough that they are not you. So you got yourself an editor (even if that just means your friend Larry is reading it for you.)

What do you need to do to make sure your reader is with you from the start?

3) Don’t Bury The Lead

Yeah, it’s an old saying from journalism. What’s it mean? Tell the reader what your point is. And tell them early. What I didn’t know was that this isn’t just an old journalism saying — it’s also backed by research. People need a reference point so they can follow what you’re saying. Without it they’re lost.

Here’s Steven:

Readers always have to fill in the background, read between the lines, and connect the dots. And that means that they’re applying their background knowledge to understanding the text in question. If they don’t know which background knowledge to apply, any passage of writing will be so sketchy and elliptical, that it’ll be incomprehensible. And that’s why journalists say, “Don’t bury the lead.” Basically, a writer has to make it clear to the reader what the topic of the passage is and what the point of the passage is. That is, the writer has to have something to talk about and the writer has to have something to say.

Feel like that will kill the suspense? Again, stop trying to be clever and just be clear. Suspense isn’t useful if people have no idea what you’re talking about and quit reading after the first paragraph.

Here’s Steven:

A lot of writers are reluctant to do that. They’re reluctant to say something like, “This paper is about hamsters,” or whatever the paper is about. Because they feel that kind of spoils the suspense. But unless you’re a really skilled mystery writer or a really good joke teller, it’s good not to try to build up suspense and then have a sudden epiphany where it all makes sense. The reader should really know where the writer is taking them as they proceed.

How soon should you say what the topic is? Soon. Really soon. Not too far from the beginning. The exact place in which the point of a text is displayed is less important than the imperative to divulge it somewhere not too far from the beginning. There are, to be sure, stand-up comedians, shaggy-dog raconteurs, consummate essayists, and authors of mystery novels who can build up curiosity and suspense and then resolve it all with a sudden revelation. But everyone else should strive to inform, not dumbfound, and that means that writers should make it clear to their readers what they are trying to accomplish.

So you’re not trying to be smart and clever and you told the reader up front what your point is. Awesome. Can you be clever now? Occasionally, yes.

4) You Don’t Have To Play By The Rules (But Try)

We all know those people who are sticklers about who and whom, and who ain’t very happy when you say ain’t.

But what these people forget is that when it comes to the “rules” of English, the lunatics are running the asylum. Dictionaries aren’t rulebooks. They follow language, they don’t guide it.

That’s right: when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum. The editors of a dictionary read a lot, keeping their eyes open for new words and senses that are used by many writers in many contexts, and the editors add or change the definitions accordingly.

Should we follow rules as best we can? Do they make our writing better on average? Absolutely.

But creative license is encouraged. Languages can, should and will change and that’s great. To be a great writer, know the rules before you break them.

Here’s Steven:

There is no tribunal. There’s no rules committee when it comes to English. It’s not like the rules of Major League Baseball which are exactly what the rules committee stipulates them to be. That would just never work with language. There are hundreds of millions of English speakers and they are constantly adding new terms to the language. They’re constantly changing shades of meaning.

Do you want to live in a world where James Brown would be forced to sing “I Feel Well” instead of “I Feel Good”? Hell, no.

So you gotta learn the rules to break them. What’s the best way to learn those rules that doesn’t feel like 4th grade English class all over again? 

5) Read Read Read

Many great writers have never read a book about writing. Ever. So how did they learn? By reading and reading and reading. Writing guides are excellent tools but anyone who wants to improve their writing needs to read a lot.

Here’s Steven:

I don’t think you could become a good writer unless you spend a lot of time immersed in text allowing you to soak up thousands of idioms and constructions and figures of speech and interesting words, to develop a sense of writing at its best. Becoming a writer requires savoring and reverse-engineering examples of good prose, giving you something to aspire to and allowing you to become sensitive to the hundreds of things that go into a good sentence that couldn’t possibly be spelled out one by one.

Yes, research shows you can tell a lot about a writer’s personality by reading their stuff. So you’re reading. But there is one last thing you need to do with everything you write and, frankly, it makes all the difference.

6) Good Writing Means Revising

Being a better writer doesn’t mean that the words come out perfect immediately. It means you spend time to hone them. The way the ideas initially pour out of your head is not the best way to get them into someone else’s. That takes work. You need to beat those words into submission. Roll up your sleeves and wrestle with them. Make time to revise.

Here’s Steven:

Much advice on good writing is really advice on revising. Because very few people are smart enough to be able to lay down some semblance of an argument and to express it in clear prose at the same time. Most writers require two passes to accomplish that, and after they’ve got the ideas down, now it’s time to refine and polish. Because the order in which ideas occur to a writer is seldom the same as the order that are best digested by a reader. And often, good writing requires a revising and rearranging the order of what you introduce so that the reader can easily follow it.

It’s all in the editing. Think that texting, email and social media are destroying the written word? Wrong.

Christian Rudder points to research showing Twitter might actually be improving people’s writing by making them edit and be more concise.

Twitter actually may be improving its users’ writing, as it forces them to wring meaning from fewer letters— it embodies William Strunk’s famous dictum, “Omit needless words”, at the keystroke level… The linguists also measured Twitter’s lexical density, its proportion of content-carrying words like verbs and nouns, and found it was not only higher than e-mail’s, but was comparable to the writing on Slate, the control used for magazine-level syntax. Everything points to the same conclusion: that Twitter hasn’t so much altered our writing as just gotten it to fit into a smaller place. Looking through the data, instead of a wasteland of cut stumps, we find a forest of bonsai. All ready to stop reading and do some writing? Let’s round up what we’ve learned and put it in perspective.

SUM UP

 Rules, rules, rules. There is a science behind these words but as Steven makes clear, language is ever-evolving. It’s organic and alive.

So don’t forget to have some fun with writing, too. As Oscar Wilde said:

A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.