“Are you ready?” she asked me on Thursday evening.
“I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to pack the car,” I replied.
Inside the house, Da Husband and Da Kids where chilling out, the house filled with the usual evening noises of a family winding down when it’s not a school night. Outside, I was checking the contents of my tri bucket, checking my wheels, triple checking that I had packed my ankle brace for running…
There is a certain tranquillity in the ritual of packing for a triathlon. You have to be systematic. Work through your list. It’s not just a case of throwing in a pair of running shoes, no. It’s the wetsuit, tri suit, cycling shoes, gloves and helmet, running shoes and cap, socks (powdered), nutrition, hydration, mixes, gear, swim cap, goggles, sunblock, anti-chafe, race belt… and, in my case, spare contact lenses, spectacles, eye drops, ankle brace, strapping, Transact patches, Arnica Ice, Wintergreen Ice, Rehydrat, sunglasses…
There’s so much to remember. Forget one small thing and your day could be over before it even began.
So when Buyiswa asked if I was ready, the truth was that I wasn’t. I was actually a little rusty.
The 10-month Rest Week
My last triathlon was earlier this year when I did 11Global and walked most of the run because my ankle was such a mess. Fast-forward 10 months, and my year consisted of
- ankle surgery and the repair and reconstruction of my peroneal tendons
- months in a leg cast
- learning to use my foot again
- becoming very ill, which resulted in the removal of my gallbladder in October
- recovering from this, my second surgery in six months.
There was very little chance to train. No, I lie. There was zero chance to train.
The rehab running sessions on the AlterG treadmill helped to maintain some kind of structure, but I didn’t swim; didn’t cycle. The spinning sessions on my indoor trainer while catching up on True Blood and Glee didn’t really help. And I had just started my own business, which required a special kind of TLC.
So why would I enter the Prime Jailbreak Triathlon, and also apply to become a Prime Suspect?
Well, I told myself that having a goal towards would give me the mental boost to speed up my recovery. To force myself back into the training mode I missed so much. Sadly, all I got was the endless frustration of falling further and further behind with the training group I was supposed to be part of. All l I felt was increasing jealousy and anger for not being able to keep up and enjoy athletic greatness.
But despite this, I decided that I would still do Jailbreak. Even if it meant coming last.
So, NO… I wasn’t ready. I was scared. But there was no turning back.
… I had to pimp my bucket.
You get a big black plastic race bucket for your transition are, and as per tradition, there is a competition to see who had the best-looking bucket. Having an awesome bucket also means you can spot your space coming into the transition area.
This year I was stumped. Time was not on my side so I kept it simple with tri images around the side and the very telling message “NO TRAINING? NO PROBLEM!” written in silver on the lid.
We were to leave at 4am and everything was packed the night before. I slept in my race gear, got up at 3h45, packed my bowl of rice and veg for 6am breakfast, and then Buyiswa and I were off. Uncharacteristically, I didn’t look at my morning news feeds to catch up on current affairs.
“I swear, if the wind blows today we head straight past the prison and go watch Hunger Games in Worcester, deal?” I tried to bargain with Buyiswa. But she wouldn’t hear of it. “You came here to get back in the game. This is a major mental hurdle. It will be tough. Just do your best.”
We heard the news of Madiba’s passing as we arrived at Brandvlei prison. Having gone to bed very early and not been online, it was a bit of a shock. And while we had a moment’s silence to show our respect, I couldn’t help but recognise the significance of the race venue. Here we were, ready to “fight” for our freedom through swimming, biking and running. And here I was, sharing the day with friends I may not have had the opportunity to meet, had it not been for Mr Mandela.
We had about an hour to kill while the maximum escape athletes navigated the swim course. I was worried. The water was incredibly choppy and the wind was picking up, and I suddenly felt a little unsure.
And then it was our turn. As we lined up in the water I felt overwhelmed by the pressure of swimming a distance I haven’t swum in months. I looked across at Buyiswa, who took the day off to be my official support and saw the excitement in her eyes. She is a newbie cyclist, having completed her first race a week ago. And there she was, looking at us, and I’m sure she felt exactly the same way I felt when I saw my first triathlon mass start.
The swim was as brutal as what I had imagined it to be. I’m usually OK in the washing machine of arms, legs, feet, elbows, punches, pushes, kicks in the face. But this time I just couldn’t settle down. A quick glance to the right made me realise that I could walk, so I swam-walked a bit until I had to start swimming again.
Suddenly I had enough. This isn’t what I had signed up for?!? Why can’t I just be watching Hunger Games in the comfortable confines of the Mountain Mill Mall? I started veering to the right to get out of the water and call it a day, when I spotted Buyiswa once again and remembered that she believed in me. My friend believed in me.
And then I swam.
Until I left the water 1.1km later…
And I wasn’t last!
A looooooooooooooooooong run to the transition area led me to the holding pen where my bucket was one of the handful still standing there.
Wetsuit off, helmet & gloves on, cycling shoes… wait. Where were my bananas? Aaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwww crap! Still in my bag in the shade of the ATC gazebo. Dammit!
But the clock was ticking, so I dashed out and started a very windy 44km ride. I had to be back by 11.
I tried to chase Tanja, but catching her seemed like a mission impossible. She was on fire! Nevermind, I thought, as I ticked off the kilometres. This is fun. Cycling is my domain. I will catch up with the rest.
But I never did. I managed to hold my position until Esther came screaming past me on her bike in the last 10kms of the ride, leaving me in her dust, wondering “where the hell did she just come from?”
Back at transition I had a problem. I couldn’t find my bucket. All I could see was a sea of bikes, but no bucket looked like mine. It felt like forever… me running up and down with my bicycle and shouting “has anyone seen my bucket?” I must have looked utterly mad.
Finally I got to run, and from the very first step I took, I knew that it was going to be hard, uncomfortable and painful.
I walked or shuffled; never ran. Never before has 5km felt so long. The photographer walked faster than me. Buyiswa walked faster than me, encouraging me to start running. At that point, bets were on that my 88-year-old Ouma Dora with her walker would have walked faster than me.
Never before have I savoured the offerings of a water table as I did on this route. I exchanged dry sponges for icy cold ones. I drank my bodyweight in Coke, water and Gu. By the time I had to start my second run loop I knew that I was going to be last.
But I didn’t care. I came to finish, no matter what.
And so I did.
My heart dropped as I ran the final stretch to the finish line and saw friends already walking back to their cars with all their gear. When did I get so slow?
And then I saw the finish line. And some die-hard friends waiting to welcome me home. And I realised that my friend Bennii hadn’t made the bike cut-off, which made me sad because she has been training like a demon. And I got my medal. And then I started to cry, overwhelmed by a mixture of exhaustion, pain and gratitude.
On Friday I learned that I was stronger that I had given myself credit for.
On Friday I realised how lucky I was to have amazing friends.
On Friday I remembered the importance of not giving up.