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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Del 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.
Thats 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.