Tuesday, April 19, 2011

South Africa Ironman 2011


David's race report from the
South Africa Ironman race, April 2011
. Inspiring!

The day began in the dark, like so many of life's big climbs and long races. In the preceding days, athletes had reported to race headquarters for their packets, received massages, gotten bikes and helmetsinspected and checked in, turned in their bags for the two transitions, and done any final preparations necessary. You could feel the tension building; if going in to battle can be any analogy, then Port Elizabeth (PE to locals) by Saturday night had the feel of a town about to go to war, and it was not only etched on the faces of the athletes, its putative soldiers, but even apparent in thetight smiles and general nervousness of some of the 40,000 in town to support the 1,700 folks competing. Doing an ironman is a test on so many levels, and we all knew that test was coming eventually, and now it was upon us.
Having had days with blustery weather, scary waves and incredible winds, race day was a treat and obvious relief to all. The water was relatively calm, the best most of us had swum in since arriving in PE, and the wind was a fairly manageable "easterly," which we'd been told would make the bike course fast. It was 19C, cool but not cold, in all about as good as it gets here.
By 6:45 am, bikes had been checked and rechecked, transition bags had been stocked with final essentials, those who wanted to had completed warm-ups, and triathletes were now all assembled in the pen on the beach. I, naturally, got to the start a bit late and had to make my way up through many in the considerable ranks in order to be with the swimmers whose finishing times I felt might best match mine. And then we all listened to the South African national anthem, a beautifully inspiring piece of music and a great send-off for the athletes. Standing there and shaking hands with and wishing luck to those around, most of them South African, you could not but help feel proud of what this amazing nation has so clearly achieved in such a small amount of time since the dismantling of apartheid. I am sure not every eye was dry; being here this week has only underscored how well-founded their pride is for country.
At 7am sharp the gun went off and, suddenly, the moment that so many had been waiting for now. Having 1700 swimmers make a bee line for the first turn buoy 300m off shore is sort of a recipe for bumping and such, but gradually openings occurred, the ranks thinned just enough, and most swimmers seemed to get into rhythms of choice. I felt immediately good, which allowed me to relax and focus on finding fast feet to swim behind, which I mostly did. By the end of the first of two equal 1.2 mile (1.9km) laps, I was feeling great and hanging with what felt like a fast bunch. Running briefly on the beach before entering the water for round two, I took a quick glance at my watch and noticed that I was on a 57 minute pace and became even more excited about how things were going.
But then the cramps started, first in the calves, then inner thighs and feet. They weren't debilitating, but they prevented me from kicking, or kicking with pointed toes, and so I had to fall off the pace in order to salvage the swim. Since arriving at a "certain age" I've noticed the entry of occasional cramping into athletic life, and though race morning and the previous evening I thought I'd followed the usual protocols to help mitigate, the cramps still came. Oh well, my plan was to back off enough in order to avoid getting a huge, race-ending cramp, and this I did. Not a great swimmer anyway, I liken triathlon's swim to a tennis player's modest serve. It gets the ball in play but certainly doesn't win the point.
The swim/bike transition, or T1, was great. I. like all triathletes, had a personal escort in the men's tent, and she very nicely and quickly unpacked my gear bag, got the shoes and helmet and incidentals out, handed them to me, repacked the bag with my swim stuff, and basically made that whole routine vastly less complicated. I'm not known for fast transitions, and this latest race was no exception, so it was a real treat having a person dedicated to helping me get through what often is an arduous, poorly coordinated, sometimes klutzy task on my part.
In Abu Dhabi four weeks back I'd tried attaching my bike cleats to my pedals prior to the race and running sock-footed to the bike and then slipping the shoes on at the beginning of the ride. That wasn't a great success, so at this race I decided to just run/fast walk in my cleats to the bike. You are not allowed to put your bike cleats on in transition anymore, one of the many rules that are different from the mostly non-rule paleolithic era of triathlon in the early and mid '80s when I used to compete seriously.
And then I was off, the body quickly shifting its own gears from swimmer to cyclist, the bike now heading down the coastal road before the one quasi-climbing portion of the 60km (37 miles and change) bike loop, which we would be completing three times. Strong cyclists were everywhere, but gradually I seemed to be moving up relative to most, trying to stay calm, repeating again and again, "it's not about the bike, it's about the run" but then still wanting to ride well and, at times, push pretty hard. Gradually, I began to feel I was having a fairly good ride and that conditions were excellent, which mentally just feeds on itself. While some others seemed to be falling off the pace by lap two and three, and a few of those around me were dinged by the referees buzzing about on motorcycles and had to spend six minutes in one of a number of penalty tents out on the course, I just kept pumping the legs, drinking the fluids, and downing the goos and energy bars I'd brought along or sometimes took from the bevy of volunteers manning a feed zone. As the end of the bike portion approached, my legs still felt surprisingly good, but I backed off the pace a bit since, well, I hadn't actually run 26.2 miles at one go since a Seattle marathon in the last century and was more than a little nervous about the prospect!
T2 was quicker, though only relatively so, and mostly because there are just fewer things to deal with in T2. Again, a compassionate and pro-active volunteer got me up and running far sooner than I would have on my own, and then I was stumbling along those first few minutes, trying to get some semblance of rhythm in the running legs and forcing the body, yet again, to make a huge physiological shift in a nanosecond.
One of the tougher aspects of the race was not knowing where any of my competition was in the 50-54 age group. I'd asked a husband of one of the triathletes competing, whom I'd met at B&B, whether he could stage himself at the exit to T2 and let me know which athletes in the 1280 - 1374 sequence of race numbers came out before me, but during the race I never saw or heard this man on the side of the course. Instead, I had to compete with a bit of gnawing uncertainty, even paranoia, and with no room for error given that there was but one Kona slot for the entire 95-person age group. So, I ran on, never quite sure what was what yet trying to stay steady and strong just in case it came down to the final miles - not that I would have been aware, if this were the case!
The first few miles were rough. I tried to find a rhythm but could tell I'd left quite a bit out on the bike course. Leaving one of the early aid stations, I somehow dislodged my container of electrolyte pills which I was carrying in a back pocket of my tri-suit, and which I'd planned to use every 20 minutes by popping a pill down with water at each aid station spaced 2 to 3km apart. It dropped to the road, and I stopped, turned around and, in leaning over to pick it up, nearly had my left hamstring go into total cramp lock-down. Clearly, I was going to need to be careful. A quick stretch and self-massage, a new resolve to over-hydrate and aggressively take more Powerade, and a gingerly, more cautious return to form ensued, and within a few minutes I was back in the running groove, trying to think positive thoughts and hoping that the hamstring had been an isolated hiccup and not a harbinger.
By the halfway point of the 26 mile or 42km run I began feeling the need to use a bathroom, something that has never happened to me in dozens and dozens of running, cycling, swim, triathlon and other races during 35+ years of competition. But there it was, nature was calling, and so now the focus became finding a port-a-potty. Of course there were none, or folks I asked didn't seem to know where one might be along the course. But then, as things were looking especially grim, I saw three of them just behind an approaching aid station and, once I stopped walking into toilets already in use and actually found my own and was able to go to the bathroom and then get back on the run course, I immediately began feeling better, like I might actually be able to make it. I was wolfing down the coke and Powerade at every aid station by now since the course was now littered with folks cramping up, or worse. At one point a male pro went by me looking smooth and strong and then seemed to hit a brick wall, his face in agony, his hands grasping his right hamstring. Later he went by me again, only to go through the same routine again. Finally, he went by me one last time and I never saw him after. I presume he finished, but a number of pros, and many amateurs, did not. Although I didn't think it was particularly hot (one advantage of living in Saudi Arabia!), many did, and the day did not end well as a result for many. Just in my age group, I believe more than a dozen in the DNF category. Fortunately, this suddenly 50 year-old body hung in there and soon I had 14km, or one lap, to go. It was about then that I began having to reach way down and remind myself that all others were in similar situations, that I'd been through this before, etc. I just read
Unbroken, an amazing and true story about the will to survive, and the ironman has got nothing on what Zamperini, the book's protagonist, had to go through in life! So, I pushed on, knowing that with every step I was getting a bit closer to the finish but still nervous about where I was in the race relative to the others in my group who were in contention for the Kona spot. It was my lowest moment; every long race has one. Or two.
About then a guy a lap behind me came up on me and we began running together, me realizing he was running a pace I thought I could rise up to and then me falling in right behind him and pretending that I had a bungee cord attached to his shorts so that I wouldn't fall back. It was a match made in heaven as Gunnar (his name) literally pulled me around that last lap, even doling out encouraging words now and again since, with slapping feet and wheezing breath, he could clearly tell I was nearing empty and pretty much on auto-pilot.
And then the finish line area downtown came into sight and, suddenly, I was overcome by emotion and tears came. I thought of all the folks, from parents to high school running coach and running teammates, to training buddies later in life, to my ever-supportive family, and to colleagues and friends that all played roles in getting me to that point; it was a very profound moment. The body tried to pretend it was still game, and I picked it up as I neared the finish, pumping my arms and slapping the hands of many who leaned out over the finish chute to congratulate. I knew by the time on the huge finish clock that things had gone well but, still, didn't know how well relative to my homeboys in the 50-54 age group.
It's not a pretty sight after a race and so, more or less in rigor mortis, just the barely living kind, I hobbled over to the massage tent for a wonderful massage and some icing. Then I picked up my bag, which had my phone, and almost immediately received a call from my in-laws, Dee and Doug Pierce who, even though a continent and many time zones away, were the first ones to inform me that I'd prevailed in the age group. I was ecstatic, especially after then calling Jennifer who confirmed the same and sounded as high as a kite.
And now it's over, and I, for one, am looking forward to spending time with my family and taking a breather from training. These past months I've felt that I've had two jobs, one of which is teaching and the other of which is full-time athlete. It will surely be nice taking a bit of time to recharge the batteries before getting back in the hunt in preparation for Kona on October 8.
This opportunity has been the chance of a lifetime, and I know many of you have played significant roles in helping me get to that finish line a few hours back. Well, I'm now hungry (what a surprise!) and breakfast soon will be served at this most excellent B&B (Algoa Bay B&B, if any of you plan to come to PE, which I highly recommend), so I must sign off.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Over spring break week, we stayed here to work most of the week and then David headed to South Africa to compete in the South African Ironman (more posts to follow on that ...), and I took the boys for a long weekend to Muscat, Oman. Grounded in Islam, Omanis remain genuinely open to others, quick to smile, friendly and willing to offer help if needed. Sure in themselves, they are not threatened by differences.

Muscat, the capital city, has well-maintained parks, beautiful gardens, palm-tree lines streets, and clean streets. People generally follow road rules and drive safely. We enjoyed swimming in the pools at the hotel, eating a variety of foods, wandering through the Muttrah souk and bargaining for items - Omani caps, frankincense and sandalwood, cotton tops, and
other interesting items. We also visited the Grand Mosque, just ten years old and one of the most beautiful mosques I have ever seen: peaceful and graceful with intricate patterns adorning the interior ceiling of the main prayer hall.

We took one day and went on a day trip with a guide to Wadi Shab, stopping at a fish market on the way. A wadi is like a southwest canyon that fills with rushing water when there's a rainstorm. The walls of the wadi rose high above the rocky terrain on the canyon floor. There were small pools of water and lush palm trees scattered throughout. We hiked up about 2 kilometers over large gravel and then larger boulders. As we got to the end of wadi, we were walking along the canyon bottom which clearly showed evidence of having been the river bottom a long time ago. We stashed our backpack and shoes and swam through clear water pools to an end cavern with a crevice wide enough above the water's level for just our heads to fit through. Inching through about two feet of narrow rock,

we entered a smaller, stunning pool of water with a waterfall on one side. Truly, it was breathtaking and amazing. Well worth the trip! For a interesting perspective on Oman, read this editorial from the New York Times as well as the comments that follow the editorial: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/14/opinion/14kristof.html?scp=6&sq=Oman&st=cse

Oman is surely
a lovely country. Thanks for reading, Jennifer