TSHELI’S EXPERIENCE: ‘I WILL PERSIST TILL I SUCCEED’
On 23 January this year I completed Ironman 70.3 in Buffalo City. I had a feeling of accomplishment, pride and joy crossing that finish line. I rested for two weeks and contemplated the full Ironman; 3.8km swim; 180km cycle and 42.2km run. I had never swum, cycled or run that far before! I spoke to my mentor and friend, Stuart Hoy, who is the owner of an adventure lifestyle company called LIFESTRUCK that inspires individuals to change their lives, and in his usual positive way, he told me that I could definitely achieve it. I also chatted to my friend Kennedy Tembo, who was doing Ironman, and we decided to train together. The whole thing sounded crazy, but I decided to go for it.
Kennedy and I found a swim coach, Adrian Goate, and he was excellent! Adrian was patient but firm and really gave us focused attention. Our cycling training involved early morning rides and longer rides on weekends. My running included finishing my first marathon in 4:30 and my first 50km in 5:40.
March consisted of three weeks of very intense training. I began to feel exhausted and just did not want to train anymore. Andre Steenkamp, who services my bike, gave me some good advice and said I just needed to enjoy my first Ironman and that it was better to go to the race under-trained than over-trained. That really gave me renewed motivation. It had been a real challenge trying to manage my work schedule and the demands of being a single mum, a daughter, friend, cousin and niece, and still finding time for myself.
The weeks I truly enjoyed were the two weeks prior to race day when we tapered. It allowed me to remember that this was fun. It also allowed me to refocus and remember that this is a personal goal I had set for myself. Then on 7 April I travelled to Port Elizabeth with my mother, Thandi, and my son, Jemelle. Many things scared me – I looked at the buoys in the sea and the distance seemed so far! We attended the briefing session, which did not settle my nerves. There was so much to prepare and so many rules!
On race morning we picked up Kennedy, who duly informed me that I had left my wetsuit at the house, but my mother had called him to alert me. Thanks mom! It was a beautiful day in PE. The windy city was just the friendly city. The beach was swarming with participants, about 1700 of them. The commentator asked all the ‘virgins’ to raise their hands. That would be me; I was number 1576. I had butterflies in my stomach.
The national anthem played and the music flowed through me. Finally, it was time. The canon fired and the race began. I walked slowly towards the water. The first 300m seemed to go by quickly. The next 780m was extremely long. I heard loud splashing noises and saw the lead swimmers rushing past me as they completed the second lap. Blimey! I was still on my first lap. Then I remembered a quote that I had read: ‘If you have made it to the start line, you have made it through the most difficult part, the training.’ I ran onto the beach and got ready to swim my next lap. ‘I can do this’, I whispered to myself. I finished the swim in two hours.
ON DRY LAND
I ran to transition and saw my mother, Jemelle, Andulela, the ‘powerful sisters’ (Zolashe, Nomonde and Nosipho) and Lungi (Zolashe’s son) cheering for me. I smiled, and set off on the long 180km bike course. In the first 15km, I had support yet again. My mother’s childhood friend, aunt Nomkita had gathered with a group of her friends and they cheered me on as I cycled past. The second 60km lap was the most difficult. I had to dig deep into my soul. I prayed, I chanted: ‘I will persist till I succeed’, 1576 is an Ironman’. I sang songs and ate fruit cake and GU. I finally finished the cycle in 7:16. I knew I was getting closer to accomplishing my goal.
The first 14km of the three lap run course felt okay. The next 14km felt like HELL. I walked a lot. On the third lap I decided I was going to run to the finish line where my family and friends were waiting. Again I prayed and repeated; ‘I will persist till I succeed, 1576 is an Ironman.’ But this time I did not eat or drink anything. I was sick of it. As I ran onto the red carpet my son Jemelle joined me. I held his hand and we crossed the finish line together, with my time 15:21. The commentator announced that “Matsheliso Lujabe is an Ironman”. I put my medal around Jemelle’s neck. What a phenomenal experience!
Ironman is the most difficult physical challenge I have ever undertaken. It has taught me that you have to have an awareness of self in order to understand how far you can push your mind and body. I learnt that you have to run your own race, at your own pace, and understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, I learnt that if I persist, I will succeed.
I was the only black African female that participated in the race – I hope that more will be inspired to join the triathlon sport. Will I do it again? Absolutely! Not only will I do it in South Africa again, but I hope to do a couple internationally.
COMRADES HERE I COME!
What’s next? Well, 2011 has been a year of ‘firsts’ for me; my first Ironman 70.3, my first marathon, my first 50km, and my first full Ironman. So why not add one of the toughest ultra-marathons in SA? The toughest thing about Comrades is that I will have to use the same muscle group for 89km. I know it will be painful, but as with Ironman, my aim is to finish this awesome race.
Thank you to my mother for sharing this journey with me, even though it scared the wits out of her, Jemelle for telling me to continue even though it took away significant mother-son time, Andulela for always supporting me, all my family and friends, Kennedy, for being a good friend and the best training partner, Stuart Hoy, Justin for babysitting me through Om Die Dam, the powerful PE sisters, Lisa Zaidel, Terry (Xterra) for the wetsuit and support, strangers that were interested enough to give tips and chat, and to Michelle Pieters of Modern Athlete, a fellow ‘virgin’ Ironman 70.3 and Full Ironman finisher, for taking an interest in my story.
KENNEDY’S EXPERIENCE: ‘NOTHING WAS GOING TO STOP ME!’
My decision to do Ironman came on 18 January while I was in my hotel room in Harare, just after my friends at Lifestruck had done the Ironman 70.3. Their stories fuelled the desire inside me to take on the challenge – after all, Ironman had always been on my bucket list. Thinking about it now, I realise just how much I took on. I couldn’t swim. In fact, I could only ‘doggy paddle,’ and even then the dogs would probably beat me hands down! My once-a-week bike training was just not good enough. The only strength I had was in running. I had been on a work assignment in Harare since August, so there wasn’t much time for proper training. I didn’t have my bike in Harare, so only rode on weekends, which meant running was the only proper training I could do, as well as some gym work at a small gym near our hotel.
A colleague and friend Lizelle Pauw kept assuring me that the swimming is just a small part of the whole race, but I couldn’t swim a lap at the end of January, so how the heck was I going to pull off 3.8km two months later? I watched YouTube swimming videos and practised in the hotel’s swimming pool. The pool was not long enough, and trust me, it took guts to swim there, surrounded by people having drinks and business meetings around the pool!
In February I moved back to Joburg after finding another job. For the first time I could concentrate on my swimming and cycling. I met Adrian Goate of Aqua Athlete, who promised to try his best and get me to a level where I would be confident enough. I couldn’t ask for more than a coach who had already done the Ironman himself.
A LOT OF FIRSTS
I was a novice in all senses. People told me that I was either brave or crazy, but I decided nothing was going to stop me! I was getting ready for the most gruelling undertaking that I have ever done. As a runner, it was a big challenge to try fit all three disciplines into a week’s training programme. I soon found myself doing the brick sessions in the mornings and swimming in the afternoons. I never enjoyed swimming in a squad at the gym because I was the slowest and could barely finish a lap or two, while I was in awe of them going on and on without stopping! Needless to say, I questioned my Ironman decision, but my swim coach was always there to motivate me.
With my first dam swim, I felt claustrophobic because of the dark water and the tightness of the wetsuit. It took me a few weeks before I had enough confidence to swim the 1.3km loop and eventually the entire 2.5km length of the dam. But soon I started loving the freedom of the open water and hated the confinement of the gym pool.
ARRIVING IN THE WINDY CITY
Nothing was more stressful than trying to remember all the stuff I needed for the race, i.e. wetsuit, helmet, cycling shoes, bombs, tubes, goggles, etc. When I arrived in PE three days before the race, my first sea swim was intimidating and made me realise how small I was in the greater scheme of things,. When I saw the distance between the first and second buoys, it intimidated me even more. I settled for a 300m loop and eventually I got out in one piece, but with a massive headache. I had survived my first swim in the sea.
The day before the race I call ‘Bluebottle Sting’ day. After a few metres in the water I felt an unpleasant burning sensation on my left palm, and a lifeguard took me to shore for vinegar treatment. Luckily my body responded well to treatment and soon I plunged into the water again. The rest of the day was spent packing, unpacking, packing again, unpacking and eventually packing the transition bags and their ‘cousins,’ the special needs bags.
This was the day that we had been training for and looking forward to. With a loud bang of the cannon, I started my swim right at the back, knowing my weakness. I just kept pushing the water with full extended strokes, as per my swimming coach’s advice. During the short run on the beach between the laps, I was told I was an hour into the race. I knew that if I kept up that pace, I would go to bed that night as an IRONMAN, and I finished my swim in 2:02. Today, I believe that this was my Ironman moment!
ON TO THE BIKE AND THE RUN
The second lap of the bike leg was the most painful as my body really started feeling the effects of being on the saddle for so long. I was looking forward to the running leg, although I had no idea what it would feel like running a marathon after 180km on the bike. I finished the bike leg in 7:35 and started my run at a good pace, lapping hundreds of people in the process. My speed started dropping around the 30km mark, but with 3km to go the adrenalin started pumping and my speed picked up. I could see the finish chute where I would be told: “Kennedy – You are an Ironman!” When I hit the red carpet I called for my daughter, who finished the race with me, and I was an IRONMAN!
This experience will remain with me for the rest of my life; the spirit of the race, the physical and mental challenge, and the finish. No one will take this away from me. I now feel confident that I can achieve anything life throws at me. And now it’s time to focus on Comrades, where I will race for my personal best this year.
Training for Ironman is a physical and mental test, and the people around you who offer priceless support and encouragement make a huge difference. Thank you to my wife, Aliko, for her endless support, my swimming coach, who single-handedly got me through the 3.8km swim, my mentor Lizelle who was more determined than I was to get me to be the Ironman that I am today, my buddy and brother Justin Webster for sharing the fruit cake, seat post and tri bar tips, tri-videos and priceless advice, my training partner Tsheli for always being there, Stuart for his support, and special thanks to Nora, Francois (a fellow Ironman) and all who shared their experiences with me. I couldn’t have done this without you all.