For some reason, I tend to sign up for Ironman races that start early in the season, perhaps so I can guarantee that I’ll be spending hours indoors on the trainer. This year was no exception, as my first race was Ironman South Africa on March 29th.
I felt like I had put in solid training leading up to the race. I spent a week at my coach’s house in France getting some quality outdoor sessions, and I even took advantage of a few unseasonably warm days in March to go test out my bike setup. I felt very prepared and ready to race when travel time rolled around.
While getting to South Africa might mean a long flight (about 10 hours), it is almost the same time zone as Europe, so that meant zero jetlag. My flight left in the evening, and I arrived in the morning. This was an excellent setup for a long-distance flight.
After fleeing the German winter and arriving in the South African summer, I made sure to hit the practice swims and do a bit of riding on the course. Port Elizabeth is on the eastern Cape, on the Indian Ocean. It’s nickname is “the Friendly City,” but also “the Windy City.” It would live up to both of those.
On race day, I noticed that pre-race, the wind was not blowing at all. The weather was shaping up to be beautiful, which was a relief after a few days of cloudy drizzle. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise and apparently there were some dolphins spotted near the swim course. The announcer reassured us “so if you see something, its a dolphin, not a shark!” Given that one of the pre-swims was modified due to shark sightings and the start is on “Shark Rock Beach,” it’s probably good he pointed that out.
This race has two age-group waves, and I was in the second, starting at 7am. By then, the sun was already well above the horizon, so it should have been easy to see where to go. After running from the beach, I settled into a good rhythm even though the water was choppy. The course involves one down and back, so we swam for close to 1500m in one line. What a change from all that swimming in a 25m pool!
The way out was uneventful and there was only a bit of the inevitable dunking and kicking. However, on the way back, I could not see any buoys for the life of me. Instead, I headed towards some hi-rise buildings and then re-adjusted once I could see the turn about 200m from me. It probably was not the shortest line, but it got me back to the course and I made it out of the water with no problems.
Onto the bike course and the wind. I should clarify - it is not as if the winds were overly strong. They were just coming from the wrong direction. The course is a big loop (that we do twice) that heads out west and then returns east. As you are heading out, there are some long climbs and a few shorter, steeper ones. The way back is mostly flat. The local saying about the course is “bestie westie, beastie eastie” since you can pick up some serious speed with a tailwind on the flat section. Unfortunately, we had beastie eastie winds.
I didn’t realize this until I had gotten to the westerly point of the course. I had been looking at my computer and thinking “wow, I’m making good time” for the climbs. I now realize that it was because I had a tail wind. On the second lap, those hills felt even easier. I’m glad that I had my power meter to keep me under control.
But when we finally turned back east for the second half of the loop, I then realized the wind direction as it slammed me in the face - the second half of each loop became quite the slog. I tried to stay in my aero bars, even in some of the slight climbs. Adding to the misery was the fact that the last 20km of each loop was on poor-quality chip seal roads. That just felt like an eternity and I was so happy to get to T2.
I headed out on the run feeling pretty good. A large part of the three loop run course goes up and down the main drag and there were people lining the route for miles. Many of them had set up tents and chairs, so it was like running through a giant tailgate. However, a few miles of each loop headed out towards the less populated university campus. That stretch was pretty lonely, and it seemed like the aid stations were never going to come.
For most of the run I felt decent and really enjoyed the atmosphere. Probably the best part of the race was the water at the run aid stations: instead of cups, they gave us plastic baggies filled with water and sealed, kind of like a water balloon. To drink, you just tore a hole in one corner. Not only were they ice cold, but you could also carry the water much more effectively than with a cup. I would usually take two and I could stretch that water out for almost a mile.
On the last lap or so, my quads were starting to really cramp up. As badly as I wanted to walk, I didn’t allow myself to think about that. Instead, I fell back to my default of simply counting to 20 over and over again. My quads really seized up in the last 400m as I was attempting to pass another woman so I had to slow way down before finally crossing the finish line.
In all, I was pleased with the way that I raced, but not satisfied with my placing. But I felt like I made big improvements in my race strategy as well as my mental performance. The entire trip was a lot of fun and I got a chance to go on a game drive and enjoy the sunshine for a few more days.
I owe lots of thanks to lots of people: my Blueseventy wetsuit, goggles, and transition bag were all top notch; the Trek Speed Concept and Shimano C50 wheels did their job in the headwinds; I relied on my Stages Powermeter to keep me from overbiking; the Skins arm coolers really helped to keep me cool and not get so fatigued from the road vibration; and my Timex bike computer and watch kept me informed. Also, thanks to my coach, Rich Laidlow, and all my Timex teammates for your support.