Saturday, April 8, 2017

Success and Safari in South Africa

In 2011 I purposely DNF’ed after the swim at Ironman St. George. After racing in Kona in 2009 and 2010, I was a little burned out on Ironman. However, Blanco was keen to return to Kona (he first raced there in 2010) so we were hoping to repeat our 2010 plan of both qualifying at Ironman St. George.

The St. George race day coincided with my birthday AND our 1st wedding anniversary and at the start line I felt so emotionally wound up, I just knew that I didn’t want to suffer through an Ironman that day. I completed the swim, soft pedaled my bike back into town and spent the rest of the day on the side of the road cheering and drinking beer. I never regretted pulling out for a single moment, even though I’d banked all those training miles. That year I went to Kona and cheered for Blanco and post-race we made a soft agreement not to return to race Ironman Hawaii in consecutive years. The decision stemmed, in some part,  from not wanting our entire existence and relationship caught up in an endless cycle of qualifying for and then racing Ironman Hawaii. We both enjoy and love triathlon but I didn’t want it to be our life together…

Therefore, it was with some trepidation after Kona in 2016 (we both raced having qualified at Los Cabos in 2015), that I said to Blanco post-race: “I want to race here again next year.” It meant breaking our little promise! I had just finished 16th in my age group in Kona with my best ever relative performance. It was not my fastest time, but after the swim and bike, I was actually in the mix in my age group… though I didn’t know it at the time, I got off the bike in 3rd place. The desire to return in 2017 was a competitive instinct… could I re-qualify and have a shot at the top ten?

Ironman South Africa became the qualifying race of choice after dismissing New Zealand (March race was too early and I’ve already raced there) and Ironman Texas (non-wetsuit swim and unappealing course). After chatting with friends who have raced there previously and with British pro Tim Don, I decided to make a *race-cation* of the trip, spending time in Stellenbosch pre-race to adjust to the time zone and then heading on safari post-race because “why not?” I’ll leave those details to a separate travelogue…

Ironman South Africa is located in Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape. It’s not a particularly attractive destination in its own right so my schedule was *all business* while there. I drove into town on Wednesday afternoon for a Sunday race and that was more than enough time to preview the course conditions, register and prepare for the race.

Race morning was a beautifully clear day with light winds and temperatures heating up to the mid 80s Fahrenheit in the afternoon. Between the lack of race shuttles to get to the start and too few porta-potties, I felt very rushed in transition and was convinced I had forgotten something. So be it. I was hustled out of transition before the pros started and I would have a 20-30min wait on the beach.

As a rolling start race, I was choosing between two swim corrals… sub 1hr or 1:00 to 1:30. As someone hoping to swim a low 1hr swim (1:05-1:10 range), coach Matt Dixon told me to line up towards the back of the sub-1hr group. Fighting my way through the crowds, I think I wound up somewhere in the middle of the sub 1hr group

*Side-note: self-seeding is precarious in these rolling swim starts. 1:00 to 1:30 swim is a huge range so I didn’t want to get stuck behind the 1:20-30 swimmers in that corral and I also didn’t want to be starting the race 20 minutes later in the day on more crowded roads. Sub 1:00 was an unrealistic time for me but joining that group was probably the right call given my race ambitions.

The starters released 7 athletes every 7 seconds into the Indian Ocean… it made for a very clean start. Even after lining up in the middle of the sub 1hr group, I think I waited 5-6 minutes after the gun for my turn. It was a smooth, clean start, navigating a small surf wave at the beginning but then quickly getting into my stroke. The first thing I noticed was that I was passing quite a few athletes… yeah, not many of those in the sub 1:00 group were capable of swimming that time!

The ocean swells were rather large so sighting on the guide buoys is close to impossible. In a pre-swim earlier in the week, I had made a note to sight off the far right most crane during the race and not stress too much if I couldn’t see a buoy when sighting. The alignment worked perfectly and on the way out I found some feet that seemed to be doing the same thing so I was happy to follow as long as I could. I inevitably lost those feet at the far end turn buoys, but quickly established myself in a small group of 3-4 guys for the return journey. Again, I knew to sight off the Radisson hotel rather than strain to sight the orange guide buoys which were not always visible given the chop and large ocean swells.

The swim felt long and having not checked my watch at any of the turns, I prepared my mind to see 1:20 on my watch as I exited the water… seeing 1:05 as I surfed onto the beach was a total thrill, especially given the large swells and choppy water.

I navigated transition deliberately, even asking a volunteer to track down some Vaseline for my chafed neck. Yes, I forgot to apply body glide in my rush out of transition for the swim! However, I’d rather give up a minute in transition to ensure I’ll be comfortable for the rest of the race than be riding for 5hrs+ with my neck burning from the hot sun and the chafing.

Once on the bike course, things didn’t seem too crowded and I was easily able to focus on my pace and my watts without worrying about packs of riders. Within the first 5 miles, an Italian woman from my age group that I knew was a likely contender for the age-group win passed me. I do my homework! I let her go as she was riding pretty hard up a slight incline and it seemed too early to be so aggressive. I admit that I thought to myself that I’d see her in the latter stages of the bike… I never did, she rode 7 minutes quicker than me (it also turns out she drafted).

Heading out on lap 1
The South Africa course is not challenging at all from a terrain perspective with only a couple of small inclines (rollers) on each lap of the two lap course. The challenge is the wind, which changes direction as you navigate your way around the coastline. I did get a flat tire during lap one of the bike but with sealant in the tire, it was a complete non-issue. The course was noticeably quieter on lap two and I found myself riding largely solo. As I climbed Heron Rd for the second time, there was a stillness in the air, and a South African rider that was passing me remarked: “the winds are changing, we are going to get a tailwind on the way home too!” Of course, I thought he was teasing or being hopeful but it turned out he knew his “winds” and having faced a headwind on the return during lap one, we were treated to a mostly tailwind on the second lap.

Checking the athletes ahead of me
My goal time for the bike was 5:20, chosen only because that’s the time I’ve ridden on other flat courses (5:21 at Cozumel and 5:18 and 5:19 at Arizona). Of course, time is somewhat arbitrary given fluctuating conditions but seeing my bike split of 5:27 when I reached T2, I was fairly happy, especially when added to the 1:05 swim!

Can't stop smiling on this beautiful course
I’ve never run a great marathon off the bike but training has been going really well, especially the run, so my goal was 3:45. Admittedly, I was expecting slightly cooler weather when I developed that goal, but the plan called for 8-8:20s off the bike. While the first mile came in sub-8:00 (whoops!), the remaining miles for the first half were just behind target, although they did include a potty stop and some aid station walking to manage the heat. The four loop run course is lined with spectators the entire way so it’s quite different from many other races where there are stretches with few crowds. Wind also plays a factor on the run and the major hill on the run was doubly cruel as it was straight into a headwind!

I ran through the first 13 miles in 1:53. I had passed my Olympic Club teammate, Mary, halfway through loop 2, but couldn’t persuade her to come with me. I’d also seen the Italian girl in my age group well ahead of me and running very well so I assumed that she had first place locked up. My pace had drifted by lap 3 and the mile splits started to come in above 9min/mi as the day heated up.

Both feet off the floor in the finish chute!
The finish line is in the middle of each loop and when I had half a lap to go, I thought I heard the race announcer call out the second place finisher in W45-49. I shoved the information out of my mind and focused on keeping cool and keeping every mile split under 10 and as close to 9 as possible. With 2km to go, I passed Mary heading in the opposite direction for one last time and appreciated her cheers of “you’re so close!” A 3:45 marathon was off the table but I knew I was going to be close to 4hrs. I was trying to remember whether a marathon was 42.2km or just 42km and wondering if that extra 0.2km would deprive me of the secondary sub 4hr goal.

Yeah... happy to be done!
As I entered the finishing chute, I looked over my shoulder and saw that I would have the finish line to myself… I didn’t waste any time over the last 200m but I gave a couple of fist pumps and had a huge smile on my face, glad to be finished and proud of my race performance. As I crossed the line, Paul Kaye, the announcer, noted I was second across the line for W45-49 so that was good news. While I couldn’t be sure there would be two Kona slots, I knew there was a high probability of it given the 75 slots in total.

Swim – 1:05:56 (PR)
Bike – 5:27:33
Run – 3:59:41
Total time – 10:42:31

Finish line reflects first athlete to leave with rolling start
I went to bed that night, sore but happy and somewhat confident there would be two slots in my age group but not entirely certain. When I woke the next morning, I received emails and Facebook messages to say that I had won my age group… I checked the results and saw that I had been promoted to first place and that the Italian girl’s results had been zero’ed out and a DQ added to her name. At Kona slot allocation, the revised results were confirmed and I was named the winner of the age group. There were two slots so I took one and the new second place finisher, a South African, took the other slot.

I also got an update as to what happened with the Italian girl from Andrew Messick, CEO of WTC… she seemed to be a super strong athlete and from my perspective had deserved the win. She finished almost 30 minutes ahead of me, mostly due to a run that was 20mins faster. However, she was awarded a drafting penalty on the bike that she failed to serve and therefore was DQ’ed.

45-49 podium
With that long story… I’m heading back to Kona in October for my 6th go at the Ironman Hawaii World Championships!

This is now so long that I need to save the safari and race-cation details for a subsequent post!

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