My parents had booked a flight to see me compete at the IM 70.3 SA and then we would take off for a little last holiday in SA before heading home. My preparation for the race had been nothing but meticulous, I had planned out any little number and specific details of workouts for months. I trained smart, consistently and with a goal: beat my time from last year by 18 minutes at least. It’s a lot, but I knew I could do it! BUT, if you have ever raced any race, you know that it is very unlikely everything will go according to plan… So, let me take you through the day:
At the beginning of race week, the water temperature was so warm that it made the swim barely wet suit legal. Then strong Easterly winds came in, blew the warm water out to sea and let the cold water rise to the surface. By Saturday night the water temperature had dropped from 24.5 deg C to 14 deg C (76 F to 57 F!!!) with such a rough surf that there was speculation the swim portion may have to be cancelled and the event turned into a duathlon. By Sunday morning the sea seemed calm, but the repeated words of the announcer for each starting wave went something like this: “We have very tough swim conditions this morning and if you are the least bit unsure of swimming in the ocean, now is the time to walk away. By being on the beach you state that you have trained for this, and are fit enough to swim 1900m in the ocean.” Every.Starting.Wave.
And it was rough: the surf to get in and out of the water brought big breakers with it only to be handled by dolphin dives on the way in and body surfing on the way out, once on the long leg out to sea swells that from shore looked fairly manageable were anywhere from 3-6 feet (1-2m), and then on the return the swells turned into choppy water that tested whether you can breathe to both sides of your body.
To top it off, I had issues with my goggles: the right side kept filling up with water and I swam with my right eye closed for most of the way. Every now and then when I needed to really sight for a buoy, I would let the water out, take a quick glance and continue on. I came out of the water at just over 35 min and knew it was going to be a tough day.
Let’s remember the bike course from last year: all the way uphill on the way out, then downhill on the way back.
Let’s remember what happens to the wind: it blows in from the sea, so going downhill, you often ride into a headwind.
The news on wind direction seemed almost positive on Saturday: it had turned to a Westerly wind, which would mean we would have headwind on the way out, but then fly back down. Well … the wind was also predicted at 20-40 mph. Next up was incredible heat: the event organizers are able to close a major national road for the race, but that also meant, we’d be out in the open, zero shade and asphalt that likely heated up to 40 deg C (100+ F), radiating the sun right back up, heat from both sides. My incredible support crew had had to wait for me an extra 20 minutes at the turn around and I had 3 words for them: hot, humid, windy. Plan B was taking effect. Never mind your goal time, just make it to the finish line. By the time I turned, at first the wind was on my side and I descended at 60+ kmh (37+ mph), I had made up 15 minutes on the first half of the way back, but the closer we got back to shore the more apparent it became that the wind had turned again. How did I know? When you find yourself going downhill, having to pedal and your speed drops to 15-20 kmh (9-12 mph), you know! I lost most of the time I had made up. That’s when you start to really curse under your breath and thoughts of “Why does South Africa hate me so much?” had fleeting moments in my brain. Nevertheless, I had executed my race plan to a T, paying attention to power output and heart rate. I knew I was going to have a good run, because I had left just enough in the tank to nail it.
Who knew that the wind would be a problem even on the run! As we ran out on the pier my visor kept wanting to come off my head, wind gusts blew me sideways. And you thought I was cursing before? Running out was almost ok and I started feeling like on Auto-Pilot, all I could focus on was one foot in front of the other. My expected finish time was long out the window anyway, now all that counted was making it to the finish line. All that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit fun. The massive hill they put on the course needed to be walked, and athletes started commiserating with each other. I met quite a few nice people! Of course that hill also brought us into a neighborhood that was filled with smoke from the park next door where people where trying to BBQ or were burning something, the air was arid and sharp in throat and lungs. The heat was still a problem despite some cloud cover that had come in. Heat and humidity from the proximity of the sea had some of the locals out with their water hoses to cool us down (Thank you wonderful people of Bunker Hill East London!)
At the finish line I high 5’d both announcers, heard my name shouted multiple times, nearly tripped right into the finish line shoot (very graceful!), but was only happy to have made it!
I actually did extremely well on my swim, came out 6th of a total of 87 in my age group! Lost quite a few places on the bike, was now only 22, and then another on a run. But overall, I finished in the top 1/3 of my age group with the bottom 1/3 not finishing at all: 4 participants never started, 11 did not finish the bike leg, another 18 did not finish the run! And that in South Africa, where I have met nothing but strong-minded, determined, stubborn athletes! In the words of my physiotherapist: South Africa doesn’t hate me, it made me stronger! It definitely did.