From Treadmill Runner to Olympic Hopeful

A Virgin’s Tale


Sunday 23 January saw a number of Bombers (Bryanston Bombers, a group of runners who train together in Bryanston), most of them first-timers, attempt and conquer Ironman 70.3. For me, it all started a while ago when Matthew, my seven-year-old, told me that his friend’s dad was an Ironman, and ‘all’ I could pull off was Comrades. My self esteem slithered to the floor!

The seed was sown and was soon nurtured by tales of this thing called ‘cross-training’ (which I thought involved sprinting across a busy intersection) and talks about ‘brick sessions’ (which I assumed had something to do with a run so hard you …. bricks).

Soon I convinced my unsuspecting better half to let me do 70.3. ‘It will be fun; some swims and rides, and not only will I stay injury-free, I’ll get stronger, too!’ I really had no clue what I was talking about, so technically I can’t be accused of lying. Soon the credit card was recruited as first I had to get ‘the basics’ (bike, shoes, tri shorts), then ‘the essentials’ (wetsuit, tri-bars, skimpy top three sizes too small), and then ‘the unavoidables’ (physio and bike transport). That was all before I shelled out more than a few bob for the entry fee, flight to East London and some humble accommodation!

During the training period I learned that cycling is bloody hard work and for me involved a disappointingly low number of cappuccino’s at the M&B as I desperately raced up Cedar Road hill to ensure that the session didn’t consume the whole of my family’s weekend, and that swimming is actually not boring, just reserved for the ‘strong of mind’. I learned what an open water swim was all about; in Mexico with the fish and in the Vaal Dam with a big black snake, and that tri bars look very cool and actually work once you know how. I learned how to put on and take off a wetsuit and how to reach behind me on the bike to those cool-looking bottle-holders.

There are many arguments about whether Comrades or Ironman is harder, and what kind of personal commitment is required to get each of them done. What I can tell you for sure is that there is nothing as stressful or exhausting as the day before an Ironman event. For me, it went like this: wake up, check bags, load watch, wetsuit, goggles into hand luggage, catch flight, find your hotel, rebuild your bike, check the tyres, register for race, check bike on 15km ride, weave madly to avoid all glass on the road, check tyres, walk to beach for swim, crap bricks wondering how you will get to those buoys, pack swim bag, pack ride bag, pack and unpack and repack run bag, apply stickers to bike, bags and supporter, repack all three bags, stand in line to check bike in, return to fetch timing chip, re-enter bike-check line, provide DNA sample to enter bike transition, find your unique ride and run bag hanger among 2000 others, attend briefing, crap yourself again, eat lunch then dinner (at once). Then you get to sleep, if you can. Compare to Comrades: arrive, register, eat, sleep, throw a few gels on top of your shoes, pin on your number, sleep. Easy-peasy!

The morning dawned bright, calm and clear – in Cape Town! In East London it was dark, windy and foreboding, but at least the sea looked calm. Down to the transition for a last bike check, put on wetsuit and enter the water for a ‘warm-up’. This part was quite funny since the water was 16 degrees, so the warm-up didn’t go as planned, but at least I got wet! Then something strange happened; all of a sudden the once distant buoys didn’t seem so far. I knew I could do this and even gave some advice to a nervous looking bloke standing beside me!

So the race began. I swam and didn’t panic or drown, then changed out of my suit and found everything I needed in my transition bag. I found my bike first time and didn’t forget to put on my helmet. The ride was tough, and going out into the wind was a challenge. The low point came at the highest point as I struggled up the off-ramp before crossing the bridge over the highway. The sign said ‘It’s ok to vomit a little’. Fortunately, coming back into town was fun and fast.

In the run transition tent I was visited by an angel who helped me find what I needed, packed away all my clobber and put up with my pathetic blubbering about how grateful I was! However, I am going to log only 11.1km for the run because I ran the first 10km on someone else’s legs. For those runners who scoff at triathletes’ run times I invite you to try running after a 1.9km swim followed by a 90km cycle.

The run consisted of 2 loops with a turn point at each end, and volunteers dispensing wrist bands at the end of the far turn point. The guys with the second wristband, the blue one, stand closer to you than the blokes with the first lap bands, so you have to run past the one you really want before having to run a full 10km before you see the beloved blue band boys!

With my two prized wristbands I trotted towards the finish. I had visions of cranking it up a bit – after all, I am a runner and it was time to show these lycra-clad, carbon-worshipping triathletes a thing or two about running – but no, it was not to be. Then I visualised how I was going to react crossing the finish line and even did a few warm-ups!

Then it happened: the path narrowed and the announcer called my name. I stared down the finishing line, concentrating single-mindedly on only one thought: how mad you would have to be to do the full Ironman! I nearly forgot my finishing celebration, and so I had to clench and pump the fists and raise the arms all in one jerky, uncoordinated instant. I think the announcer thought I had a cramp attack! I crossed the line in 5:37.

It seems that I am going to have to go back next year to get it right. I have some unfinished business with that finishing straight!