Nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming range of emotions you will experience at a race like Ironman 70.3. And nobody prepares you for the (un)likelyhood of not finishing. I guess because nobody expects to walk away with a DNF. But that was to be my fate on 20 January.
At first, I was devastated when the realisation that my race was over finally dawned upon me in the medical tent, and I could do nothing else but cry.
But now that more than a week has passed, I can look back to my entire 70.3 journey more objectively. It’s easy to forget the Leo of six months ago. The one who ran her first swim time trials in the pool because she didn’t know how to swim. The one who was told by her coach to step it up a notch if she ever wanted to make it past the first buoy on race day. But my friends forced me to remember that person and acknowledge how far I have come. But more than that – they forced me to remember our journey, the training, the learning and the amazing friendships made.
So today… today I am proud.
But, let’s start at the beginning.
Sofie (Die Hard), Meg (Bergie), Radesh (our photographer, mascot and general good luck charm) and I decided to drive to East London to save costs. Taking turns to drive and rest, the car was filled with excited chatter and long stretches of silence in between. We were all equally nervous, but dealt with it in our own way. And when we finally arrived at our hotel after dark, we were immediately concerned about the heat and humidity. Was this to be a taste of what we could expect on Race Day?
Friday was a blur of non-stop race related activity. Registration! Expo! Having your Athlete bracelet tied around your wrist, making you feel like a total rockstar! People in compression socks! Athletes riding up and down beach road to test their bikes! 70.3 virgins (making up more than half of the field) walking around with panic-stricken faces! Race briefing! Friesland milkshake! (or was that Saturday?) Photos! Interviews! Official practice swims, where training groups would gather around buoys for route planning and sagely advice from their coaches!
After some discussion, we decided to steer clear from any group activities in an effort to stay calm and focused. It’s nerve-wrecking enough to be part of the action, and we didn’t need any additional stress.
On Saturday we decided to drive the bike course and realised, too late, that we were on the wrong route. (“Are you CRAZY??!!??!!”, shouted Stacey over the phone when we asked her directions. “You’re supposed to relax and only worry about the route tomorrow!!!”) So we went back to our hotel to prepare our race bags and get ready to rack our bikes.
In a last-minute fit of panic, a mere 15 minutes before transition closed on Saturday afternoon, I decided that my tubes needed to be slimed as I wasn’t going to carry any spares. And since only officials and athletes were allowed in the transition area, the bike mechanic from the shop next door got permission from one of the referees to do the necessary work through the transition fence – much to the amusement of fellow athletes and passers-by.
Then it was time to put our feet up and relax before the big day and focus on the things we were able to control.
The plan was to head down to transition just after 5am to load our race nutrition and for last-minute checks and then head back to the hotel for breakfast.
I woke up feeling a little feverish and with my stomach in knots, and I can safely say I wasn’t the only one who had to dash to the bathroom every five minutes.
My initial plan was to head down to the beach for the start formalities – incl. listening to the national anthem and watching the pro athletes’ swim, but decided to stay indoors in an effort to calm down. I still have no idea whether the choir singing the national anthem was standing on the beach or whether it was a recording, but I could hear it from our balcony which, together with the helicopters sounding overhead, gave us a taste of what was to come. It was a beautiful sound. This was Race Day. Serious business.
We eventually headed down to the beach to warm up and hand in our Swim bags (the bag with the things you plan to wear and use at the end of the race) and get loaded into our wave chute. It was difficult to stay focused and not get carried away by others’ emotions and stress. But Megan, Sofie and I stayed together and made an effort to keep things light.
Once on the beach, some were overcome by nerves and perhaps a little fear of the unknown, and I saw some tears flowing. Once again, we sought strength from our friends, and after horsing around with Stacey (Ninja), Inge (Granny Ninja), Meg & Sofie, and posing for photographs (how Radesh made it onto the beach is still a mystery), the start gun sounded and we were off.
The swim went off without a hitch. My plan was to steer clear of any conflict zones (swimmers fighting for space). The breaking swell coming back was a little hairy and I struggled to sight the last exit buoy, but other than that my game plan worked out perfectly and, although still slow relative to the other swimmers, I was right on schedule and came out in under an hour.
Then it was through the showers and into transition, where the saintly volunteers helped me out of my wetsuit and into my shoes, while I tended to other important things like eating and putting on my helmet.
Granted, it wasn’t the speediest of transitions (note to self – less talking to others and more focus), but I felt content as I hopped on the bike and headed out towards the 45km turnaround point.
The first 20km went fast as lightning, but I had this overwhelming thirst that just wouldn’t go away. I felt hot and bothered and very very very thirsty. So much so that I sucked both my bottles dry within the first 10km.
Mistake 1: I discarded my mix (couldn’t handle any sweetness in the heat) and stuck to water.
When I got to the first water point I was desperate for water and it felt as if I had spent a week in the desert. So what did I do? Downed more water, filled up my bottles and moved along, knowing that I only had a smidgen more than 4 hours to finish the bike course and that I didn’t have any extra time like those who had the fastest swims.
Now, when you train for an endurance event, you get told about The Wall. The point in your race when you will enter the pits of hell and don’t think you’re going to make it out. But, you are told, no matter how low you feel, there’s always a second wind and you will feel better. But the question is… when is it just The Wall and when are you actually getting sick? At this point of the race, I didn’t know the difference. But by the time I got to the 30km mark, my water bottles were sucked dry again and I was in trouble. Except, I didn’t know it.
I was a few hundred metres away from the Berlin turn-around when I noticed Sofie on the other side of the road. Which made me happy because that meant I was gaining time and that we could push each other to the finish. It also meant that water was around the corner. But at that point I wasn’t thinking straight.
What I thought would happen at Berlin: I’d get off my bike, have some GU. Fill up my bottles with one GU and one water (I knew I needed to replace my electrolytes) and speed off into the blazing sun and headwind back to the finish, clocking into T2 just in time and then proceed to enjoy a leisurely 21km run.
What actually happened at Berlin: I got off my bike, asked for GU and water. Was about to get my bottles out when I felt a little wobbly and sat down. Then I was on my back. Then my eyes were closed. And then people were pouring ice over me. I’m not quite sure what I said or what I saw, other than the fact that it felt like my brain was splitting in two, with half trying to maintain some intellectual control while the other half made sure I didn’t pee in my pants. It was then that I saw my uncle’s face (he was working at the pentalty tent up the road) and I asked him to tell my mom I was OK.
The trip back to the medical tent was a blur. I had an oxygen mask over my face and a drip in my arm. When I got to the medical tent I still got up off the stretcher and onto another, but I have no idea how I did it. I was asked questions and I answered them. Somebody came to take blood and I was put onto another drip.
Everything was a little hazy…
Then I was suddenly on full alert, and that’s when I heard Paul Kaye’s voice. Which meant that my race was over. Which meant that I disappointed myself and everyone who believed in me. Which meant that every sacrifice and time spent away from my family to focus on my training was for nothing. At which point I started to cry.
The guy on the bed next to me took my hand and told me there’s always next year. He didn’t look in much better shape than I was, but he also seemed pretty pro, so I just nodded.
A little later one of the nurses came to tell me that I was very lucky. At least, luckier than the two healthy guys who went into the water and were carried out on stretchers.
At that point I didn’t know what she meant by it, other than thinking that they maybe panicked and came back out. Then I heard that those two men died in the swim that morning. Fit and healthy men who went into the water and weren’t seen alive again. It was quite a blow to hear the news and it really put my own misfortune into perspective. Just like nobody expects not to finish a race, nobody expects to not come out alive either. My thoughts have been with their families ever since.
It was while in the medical tent that I heard that my friend and tri mentor Stacey didn’t make the cut-off for a second time. Neither did Sofie and Meg. Nor did Maria and one of the Chanels. It made me very sad.
Later, when I headed to the finish line, I witnessed the finish of one very special athlete who participated with his son. It was their fourth attempt and they were finally successful. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when they received a standing ovation at the awards dinner that night.
Not too shortly afterwards, our friend and training partner David T (Ice Man) missed the cut-off by a minute, after having completed the ENTIRE course. Dave, you’re my hero. And if there’s one thing nobody can take away from you is that you covered EFI of that course.
BUT… This is not the end…
Now that we’re back and have enjoyed the right amount of rest time, I’m itching to get back into it. Sof, Meg and I already have a bumper race calendar and I’ll be doing my first Xterra in Feb. Only the little one, mind you, in support of Da Husband who will do his very first triathlon. Yeah, the swim’s a little short for my taste (400m), but every first-timer has to start somewhere, right? 🙂
Will I do 70.3 again in 2014? OF COURSE! I want that medal! And I want to enjoy a celebratory beer with everyone who didn’t finish last year but who WILL be victorious next time around. Plus, 2014 sounds like my new lucky number.
So, keep an eye on this space for more racing (mis)adventures.
Thank You Honor Roll
Massive thank-yous from the bottom of my heart to
- my family, friends and colleagues who supported and believed in me.
- Da Husband, who tried not to complain too much about me never being home.
- My mom, who stayed with us to look after the kids when I had to train on weekends (especially when this coincided with Da Husband’s fishing time) and who still thinks I’m awesome (well… of course she has to – I’m her kid and all)
- My kids, who still believe I’m an Ironman, even when I don’t have the medal to show for it.
- Stacey’s dad, a.k.a. Race Dad, who became a substitute parent while I was sobbing in the medical tent.
- Coach Evil Steve, who whipped me into shape. I’ll make you proud next year, coach!
- Sofie & Meg, who started out as slow lane buddies but then became my very special friends.
- Stacey and Inge who motivated us all the way.
- … and all the new friends I made at Embark – who made this journey so very special