There are times in one’s life when someone suggests doing something and you find yourself enthusiastically going along with it, only to later question the original sanity of the decision. That was what I found myself doing more than once on Friday 10th October 2014 as I found myself staring up the impossibly steep, rocky face up which I was to carry my mountain bike and, even by that stage, fatigued body and mind. This, ladies and gentleman, was the Red Bull Sultan of the Desert Adventure Race: a three discipline race – trail run, mountain bike, and kayak – that athletes could either complete legs of as part of a team or, like the small band of insane people of which I was a member, race the entire course.
The race started, for me at least, a few days earlier as I tapped up friends for the loan of a decent mountain bike, given the fact that I had entered a race that required one and yet had last been on one a year ago in Europe. Bike duly lent (thank you Rachael 🙂 ) I trekked over to Al Ain, where a friend and colleague of mine was kind enough to host me at her and her husband’s place a short distance from the race venue, Wadi Adventure. Pre-race preparations included an awesome braii, continuing my South African vibe from the previous weekend, and firming up last minute team members for a couple of teams suddenly without key members. I felt a bit like a sports agent 🙂
As with every race I have done to date, the day started incredibly early and we arrived at Wadi Adventure to register as the sun was still very much starting its ascent. Following one bib number change and then another on the day itself, I found myself racing as number 136, got my bike racked, Camel-Pak suitably loaded up with water and nutrition, and waited with the rest of the posse for both the race briefing and then buses out to the start of the first stage of the day: the 15km trail run back into Wadi Adventure.
In hindsight it would have been much better to have had the run kicking off significantly earlier, even right at the crack of dawn, as by the time the starting horn went, following a valiant effort by MC Very Enthusiastic to whip us up into a 300-esque frenzy, the sun was already beating down on us, meaning that even from the start I found my heart-rate shooting up to about 180 and remaining there even as I was forced to slow down my pace. The initial few kilometres seemed to be very short but the going got significantly tougher as we reached our first serious ascent, with running up it simply not something that was going to happen. The key difference between the road and track running that I am used to with triathlon and trail is that there are a lot more opportunities to roll an ankle, slip or otherwise do yourself an injury. On the flip side, as long as you’re careful and don’t do anything too heroic or out of control then trail is far more interesting. Our run route took us through valleys and even through a couple of wadi drains, as we ducked under roads, before emerging the Wadi Adventure side of Jebel Hafeet, and the last few kilometres to base and the start of our bike leg. The placing of water stations at regular intervals was welcome, especially the provision of chilled water, much of which ended up being poured onto and over me as opposed to into me, such was the temperature.
My run time was, in hindsight, a relatively steady 1hr 32min, and would certainly have been faster had I not forced myself to walk sections of it in a bid to bring my heart rate down to a more sustainable level. As I came into Wadi Adventure I took a quick detour via my car in order to change running shoes (wrecking an expensive pair of Zoots on both the trail run and mountain bike seemed wasteful) and a pair of decent cycling shorts, my logic being that I would be sat on my backside for the foreseeable future on both the bike and then the kayak. If I was going to have to suffer then at least it wouldn’t be my arse that bore the brunt!
By the end of the run I was craving some sugar and, more pressing, salts, having stupidly forgotten to pack my electrolyte tablets for the one race where it seemed I was definitely going to be wanting them. Although it was a Red Bull sponsored event, offering athletes only Red Bull or water seemed a little silly. As much as I really didn’t need to be guzzling down the copious amounts of caffeine in the aforementioned beverage, my craving for additional sugar to fuel the next stage was greater and so a can was consumed before I was off on the bike, heading out along the initial straight. It might have been a straight, flat line but it was also predominantly thick sand – not the easiest to cycle in, thats for sure! Pushing the bike – a repeated exercise over the next 15km – was necessary for much of the first section, before the drinks station and just before entering the really technical stage of the ride. The MTB course had apparently been designed by a Red Bull sponsored downhill champion and it showed! Rocky, impossibly narrow on sections, with some serious drop offs and fast sections, and an area where we literally had to carry our bikes up a steep face. This relatively short section of more technical riding, which I believe was only about 4km, took most of us a considerable amount of time to navigate our way around and I certainly wasn’t the only person who felt a real attachment to their intact collar bones and thus walked a sizeable portion of the route. The final 8km of the course were flat, taking in the outskirts of the Wadi Adventure park and then taking us over the main road to the hotel and the kayak transition. I am not ashamed to say that I was pretty well cooked by the time I arrived and the sight of athletes further up the field carrying their kayaks back towards Wadi Adventure did little to rejuvenate my flagging energy levels.
A slight moment of the ‘whites’ once off the bike, followed swiftly by a hastily guzzled down Race Food bar, led me into the kayak for the three loops around the artificial lake, this being the first stage of the kayak event. Although I have had the privilege of doing a bit of paddling recently around the Palm, it was clear that my paddling technique still required some honing as I received helpful pointers from much faster fellow athletes, especially as on several occasions I found the kayak spinning to face the wrong way, a frustrating occurrence when all I now wanted was to see the finish line. Anyway, through a combination of stubborn determination, crap technique interspersed with moments of correct technique, and a strong desire to finish the race already, I ploughed on, exiting the water, I believe, in last place. A quick check of the rules to see if there was any reason why I could not place my kayak on my bike for the return to Wadi Adventure – I couldn’t sadly. Thankfully, a fellow individual competitor, Mark, was also at the same stage as me and so we teamed up, taking either end of the kayaks and walking the 2km (plus) back, flanked by the marshals who had stayed back to usher us stragglers in. 20 minutes later and we arrived at the white water course, eager to finish our short but fun rapids stage prior to the finish line, but were met with the rather annoying advice that as they had run out of time for the event (Jeez! Were we really THAT slow and behind everyone else?!) we would just have to drop the kayaks and run to the finish line. As much as I was glad to see the back of those kayaks and was eager to be done, I was also bitterly disappointed to not at least be able to finish ALL of the race. I couldn’t help myself as I asked the organiser, with an unavoidable hint of annoyance in my voice, why, if they were running out of time for us, did they feel it was ok to allow us to lug the kayaks all the way back when we could have been given a bit of a helping lift in order that we at least got to finish the race properly?! Obviously the kayak carrying was still part of the race but I’m sure most would agree that given the choice of which bit could feasibly be ‘cut out’ from the race in favour of doing the really fun bit (the white water), it would have been lugging 22kg kayaks the best part of 2km! Still, the fact remained: we were last, time was against us and so Mark and I ran to the finish, crossing together to close out the day’s efforts. Nearly 6 hours after starting it was over.
As fun as the race was in hindsight, and an epic achievement, especially given the fact that there were actually several DNFs, I would opt to run a half Ironman distance race any day! It was a tough, tough race and I am sure if I work on my specific discipline fitness (trail run, mountain bike and paddling), all of which I really haven’t done much of at all, then a return to the race next year (lol – see what I’m already doing?! Mentally signing up already! We are gluttons for punishment!) would, I am certain, see a much faster time. In the meantime, I plan to stick to triathlon 🙂
Love can spur us on to great deeds. It can also lead to torment and self-lament, especially if it is threatened or snatched away. The decision as to what to do in such situations is telling and it was with such a backdrop that I made the very last minute decision to grab the long Eid weekend by the horns, book a flight and, taking the fact that my bike was still installed in its flight case after the Tahoe misadventure, sign up to a race. A half iron distance race to be precise.
I was actually born in South Africa so when my coach and friend, Trace, suggested joining her, Rachael and Phillipe in Durban off the back of a last minute Facebook enquiry regarding “stuff that might be happening in Dubai over Eid” it took less than a second to brand it an awesome idea. Here was a chance to visit the country of my birth for the first time since leaving when I was four. Impulsive? Yes. Expensive? Sure (the flights anyway). Well deserved and much needed? Abso-bloody-lutely! The race we had signed up for was the TriRock Durban triathlon, in its second year of running and a half-iron distance race, with a 1.9km sea swim, off the huge expansive beach in the city, followed by a 90km undulating cycle along the coastal road to the beautiful resort town of Ballito, returning to Durban where a three-lap half marathon, along the promenade and in view of the impressive Durban football stadium, stood between us and our race medals.
Flying direct to Durban, our path took us in an almost perfectly straight diagonal line from Dubai, flying over the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, out into the Indian Ocean and along the Eastern coast of the great continent of Africa itself. Landing in the evening we were greeted with a somewhat overcast, drizzly first impression of this surf hotspot, and once we had surprisingly managed to squeeze our two bike boxes plus bags into a VW Polo, it was time to break out the old school paper based navigation, supported by phone-issued instructions, in order to find our base for the weekend: Trace’s incredibly hospitable aunt and uncle. Living about 30minutes out of the main Durban city centre, up one of the many hills that apparently form the mighty Comrades Marathon route, their beautiful house was one of six in a small, gated community, complete with keypad entry and electric fencing running along the perimeter. Once inside it was easy to forget the very real security issues that South Africans deal with every day, and apart from the fact that doors and windows had the additional safety of bars, we could easily have been in an affluent Surrey suburb, especially when one looked out onto the garden, bursting with life and colour as it was. One of Trace’s friends kindly hosted me a few minutes down the road and it was a pleasure getting to know her family, with the level of generosity and kindness being shown to a stranger proving a common feature of the South Africans I had the honour of meeting over the weekend.
The first day in Durban was spent, as with any other race, just getting ourselves organised, registered and generally set up for race day, with our bikes needing to be rebuilt and racked the following day. The base from which Tri Rock Durban was operating was the Sun Coast casino, a funky, Art Deco-esque building right on the beachfront and within strolling distance of the impressive football stadium, complete with randomly multi-coloured seats, giving the impression of a full house whenever viewed by onlookers. The event had attracted a little over 1,000 athletes to the half distance race this year, a tripling in numbers according to the organiser, and with a bold, strong and unique look to the whole race, it was shaping up to be an exciting experience. The only issue that was threatening perfection in all things was the concern regarding the huge surf; the largest, we were told, in Durban for the last decade. And all on race weekend! Awesome. It’s almost as if the piss poor luck of Tahoe was stalking me! The talk was of cancelling the swim as it would simply have not been possible to get through the staggeringly huge waves that were pummelling the shoreline. Add to that the fact that due to the big swells and currents, the shark nets had been taken down and it was clear why the organisers were having a bit of an issue deciding what to ultimately do, with everyone praying to the weather gods to calm things down for Sunday. I did even offer, half-jokingly, to jump back on the plane, such has been the luck that I have attracted this past few weeks.
After some obligatory expo exploring and purchasing of stuff, including some pretty rad T-shirts, a new tri-suit and a pair of transitional Oakleys – prices were just so much lower than in Dubai that it would have been rude not to buy something – we all jumped in the car and headed out of Durban, north along the cycle route we would be taking on Sunday. The 45km stretch of coastal highway was undulating, green and with views out over the hills and stunning shore that songs have surely been sung about and masterpieces painted in honour of. Ballito, the turnaround point on the bikes, is an idyllic coastal resort town with a rocky, wild coast composed of wide arching bays separated by craggy, rocky projections of the South African mainland into the wild yet enchanting Indian Ocean.
Our lunchtime vista from the restaurant we found, and ate like kings at, was of thunderous surf and whales breaching in the distance. Any meal as good as the one we were served up, complete with the delicious locally brewed beer, needs a decent walk afterwards and so a leisurely 4km stroll out and back along the coast was had, giving us time to see the many cross sections of life that exist in this rainbow nation, from frolicking holidaymakers, testing their luck in the frenzied surf, to small traders selling their varied wares along the coastal path. Trace purchased a huge bag of even bigger avocados, as well as some beads, from an elderly woman, conversing and completing the transaction in Zulu, the indigenous language of the region. Incredible food was the theme extended into that evening, with one of the best steaks I think I have ever tasted being the pleasure. Simple food done well is an art and one that South Africans seem to have a natural flair for.
I had always told myself that I would never swim in the waters off South Africa, such is the knowledge I have of what is swimming out there. I mean, of course, sharks! The fact that anyone you spoke with confirmed casually that yes, there were of course sharks in the waters off Durban, combined with talk of the shark nets did little to allay the pre-existing fears that I had of venturing out into even the shallows, let alone the depths. Still, there was a swim to be done (assuming it wasn’t called off) and we needed to practice, if anything to get some training in for how to overcome the surf through which we would need to emerge. Saturday morning was simply stunning, with the deep blue skies, azure sea and golden sands you’d come to expect of a surfing destination, and so it was with a true sense of being on an adventure that we trekked to the southern extent of Durban’s apparently endless beach where we found a group of like minded South Africans, all over from Johannesburg to race on Sunday. Heading out for a relatively relaxed and short loop with a larger, more experienced group, complete with welcome pointers for how best to handle the surf, did wonders for keeping any concerns I may have initially had safely at bay. In the end I thoroughly enjoyed the swim, body surfing in to shore and even going out for a second time with another group. Sure I allowed sharks to enter my thoughts whilst in the water but I simply did not permit them to linger. The truth is that shark attacks are so rare that they’re really not something to be overly hung up about and it was valuable to learn that then, the day before the race, rather than to still harbour potentially crippling anxieties on race morning itself.
Yet more good food – it always tastes better when sat on a beach, watching the various characters go by – with great company topped off the best start to the day, with final, last minute preparations being the main objective before racking up and the race brief later on. A spin around the block on the bikes back in the suburbs, before one final pack of the various transition bags and it was off to T1 we headed. It is amazing how we were able to fit so much, including two fully race-ready bikes, into the back of a little VW Polo, but between the Tardis-like capacity and reassuring power and speed of our little hire-car-supreme, I felt a renewed sense of awe at the engineering brilliance of the Germans!
Transition was much like any other, with rows and rows of bike racks, growing fuller and thus increasing considerably in value, something that did cause me some anxiety given what the reports are of robbery, and crime in general, in South Africa and considering that all that effectively separated the general public of Durban from all our very pricey stuff was a single fence, with a small person-sized gap at the bottom. Still, those concerns were also quickly zapped as we turned up the following morning to find everything exactly as we had left it, although our transition bags were a little more ordered from the big piles that they started as the evening before. With bikes racked, bags deposited and the surf still giving it good guns we trekked off to the race brief, with the organisers confirming that we would, thankfully, be doing a full triathlon after all but that the swim route was to be changed slightly and shortened a little. This meant that instead of starting and finishing at the Bay of Plenty, where transition was situated and where the surf would give even Kelly Slater palpitations, we were to start about 2km further up the beach at uShaka Marine World, near the main pier and harbour entrance, where the surf was significantly tamer, swim out to a buoy, turn left and then swim the planned 1.4km parallel to the shore to the next buoy. At this point it was simply a case of hanging a sharp left and emerging a hero from the swim before a short (well, 800m or so) jog back down the esplanade to transition and our bikes. Simple enough it seemed.
As is customary for any big race, sleep was desired but delivered in little, intermittent bursts. Not that the effects are ever really noticed as the adrenaline that starts pumping on race day starts pretty much the night before and continues through to the finish line. Like a natural hit from a triple-double espresso! Final checks, tri-suit on (my nice new one, contrary to the general advice that is not to test out new kit on race day), day bag picked up and a bit of food consumed, and it was out the door by 0430 for the drive down to the beach, complete with sunrise for good measure.
After the usual last minute additions to the bike of race computer, nutrition bottles and a check of tire pressures, and an obligatory and almost ritual ‘pit stop,’ we hopped in Phillipe and Rachael’s car for the short journey down the beach to the swim start, saving us a soggy stroll as the drizzle set in for a pre-swim water start. Wetsuits on. Body Glide applied. Goggles defogged and swim caps donned. This was about to get real and we were pumped and ready!
Big Swim & Scary Surf
All three of us (Rachael, Trace and myself) were assigned to wave 3, the yellow caps, and with the waves lapping at our feet, a helicopter hovering overhead and the sound of our own breathing in our ears as we locked in to our own respective zones, we waited for the countdown and the start horn. “Go!” We were off, calmly but pointedly forging into the surf, remembering the advice of our new South African friends the day before. Once over the initial surf, the buoy was sighted and the focus was on getting into a nice swim rhythm whilst trying to avoid any overwhelming thoughts of what almost certainly lay beneath and beyond. I was generally pleased with my swim, keeping good pace and feeling free and limber in my tri-specific wetsuit, one of the best purchases of the last year, and although sighting the far buoy was tricky, with times when it seemed to get significantly closer followed by appearing another mile away, the swim was pretty fun. There was one “oh shit” moment when something unmistakably large swam beneath me, unfocused and fleeting enough to not allow a definite recognition of what it may have been. Of course I had a very strong idea of what it might have been but other than checking exactly where the rest of the main pack were and swimming pointedly to rejoin them (safety in numbers, right?!) I remained calm, something I would not have predicted even a week ago. Eventually, after what certainly seemed like a longer swim than just 1.4km, I turned back towards shore recalling the advice of the race officials to stay left if we preferred less surf but a fractionally longer run or right, towards the small pier, if we wished to take advantage of the surf and ride it in dolphin style. Most of us, as it transpired, had little opportunity to make a conscious choice as before even realising it I found myself in an area of white water, with several rather alarmed looking fellow swimmers in front of me. When I turned to see what it was they were looking rather aghast at I must confess that I involuntarily blurted out several expletives. The reason for this outburst? Lets just say that what I saw was like something out of one of those Hawaiian surf pro movies: HUGE and THUNDEROUS and TERRIFYING and LOOMING RIGHT DOWN ON US!
There was barely enough time to gasp down a breath before we were consumed by water, swirling and twisting as I remembered to cover my head for protection from either the seabed or other bodies in the water, counting down the seconds – although they started to feel like minutes – before popping to the surface and welcome air. I am used to the drill of being tumbled in surf, having indulged in a little surfing before, but I found myself getting really concerned at one point that I was rapidly running out of breath yet still underwater. Drowning in the sea off Durban was not the way I had envisioned expiring so it was with vocal relief that I found myself airside again, with barely enough time to catch a hasty breath before wave number two came booming down on us. After waves three and four I started to get worried not only for my own safety but also that of other swimmers, some of whom I could see were in more trouble than me. I consider myself a fairly confident and strong swimmer, and had a particularly decent and buoyant wetsuit on whereas there were triathletes in the mix for whom the swim was evidently not their strongest discipline and were now close to full on panic. And I wouldn’t have blamed them! People were losing hats, goggles and becoming disorientated and tired during the onslaught from the waves, with a couple of lifeguards doing what they could from shore. Thankfully the waves were such that they were driving us forward, toward the beach, as opposed to creating a back current, which I am almost certain would have resulted in at least one drowning that morning. As such, as quickly as we found ourselves in the watery equivalent of a Slipknot mosh pit, the waves propelled us into less tumultuous waters and eventually a scramble out on to the beach. I almost forgot to take my wetsuit off at the water such was my desire to get away from the swim and onto the bike, but with wetsuit in hand I joined my fellow battered athletes for the short run down to T1.
Rolling Hills & Views
I’ll be the first to admit that I took way too long in transition and that will be one thing I aim to improve on in future races. However, with 90km ahead of me and no option to return to my bike bag after leaving it I wanted to ensure that nothing essential was forgotten, even spraying on sunscreen, which at the time seemed futile given how sodden I was and how grey and overcast it still was (I was glad of it though later in the day as the sun made a decent appearance). I met Trace at the mount line, with Rachael already off ahead on the bike somewhere. Trace looked both shell-shocked and even said how relieved she was to see me out of the swim – always caring about her athletes – although I wasn’t aware at that point of how bad a time she had had in her swim and how she was now cramping up. A quick jump on the bike and it was off along the promenade, past the football stadium and onto the first of several climbs of the day, nothing too taxing and certainly helped by the Hatta and Jebel Jais training rides. The coastal highway we were on had recently been resurfaced and was closed for the duration of the race, meaning no concerns over danger from motorists and a pleasant, smooth ride, with the downhills being exhilarating. My speedo had me topped out at my fastest at over 57kph, the quickest I have ever been on my bike! I found myself by about kilometre 30 unintentionally playing swapsies with a fellow cyclist as she would pass me on every ascent only for me to sail past her on the descents and flat portions. On the sixteenth (maybe more) passing I jokingly quipped to her that if we were going to continue following each other then I should at least know her name: Christine. So Chris and Christine continued their onward cycle, never drafting I hasten to add in spite of seeing firsthand a few flagrant displays of the same, and came in to the final bike straight after what felt like a really fast and ultimately enjoyable bike leg of the day. I did feel a bit light-headed as I approached transition, suspecting that I had maybe overcooked it slightly on the bike, a dangerous trap to fall into when the element of competition creeps in, but I was certainly looking forward to the final test of the day, run as it would in glorious sunshine and with the sound of music and supporters mixing with the rhythmic pound of the waves.
Dig In & Complete
Once again, transition could have been a little speedier but, again, I wanted to ensure I did not forget anything that I needed for the half marathon, including applying the miracle that is 3B cream. I was told by someone firmly in the know about how awesome that stuff is and can testify that it is, indeed, a lifesaver. Chafing? Pah! I emerged from the tent feeling tired but determined to see the day out in good style and post a decent run time. The first leg of the loop that we ran three of took us away from the main spectator area and finish along the coast to the river inlet, where we turned and headed back. Coming past the transition tent on the return, the noise from the crowd and music kicked in and helped us push on past the central bar area, with the smell of barbecue and beer wafting over us in a combination of both mocking and encouragement, with the thought of what awaited us at the finish being literally there for us to taste. The support from the crowds was brilliant and with the beautiful Garmin girls manning the water station near the last turnaround, the energy was palpable.
I found the first loop the toughest, as perhaps might be expected coming off the bike, with a short walk to take on some nutrition being the only real time that I let my pace drop too low. Initially my plan was to keep my pace at about 5:20 per km but soon switched to monitoring my heart rate instead, keeping it between about 165 and 180bpm, which seemed to work. I saw Rachael initially on the return leg of her second loop and then a few times more, noting how comfortable she looked. Clearly on for an impressive time and having what was evidently a blinding race, she crossed the line first out of the three of us. A truly epic effort indeed! As I reached the final two kilometres of the run I spotted Rachael and Phillipe in the spectator area, taking the opportunity to jettison the Amphipod I had been carrying since the start, and lose the bike gloves that I’d forgotten to take off in transition. Perhaps it was the new sense of weightlessness or simply the knowledge that I was tantalisingly close to the finish line, but I found a surge of energy from somewhere – why don’t they ever come earlier in the race when they would of more use?! – and after giving Trace a holler of encouragement, stuck my foot down and found myself motoring to the finish line, slowing in order to savour the actual moment of crossing. I had done it! I had completed my first half iron distance race (ignoring the fact that the total distance was a little under the official half IM distance) and put to bed some of the demons that I hadn’t quite realised were lingering from Tahoe. Everyone had been saying that I should find a race to do but I didn’t really feel in the mood. Racing and finishing in Durban, however, made me realise how badly I did need to race, having trained so hard for so long. If anything the post-race beer tasted exquisite and was a welcome reward at the end.
Trace finished a little after and with everyone lined up along the finish chute we cheered her on to the line, able to now bask in the fact that we had come through it and had a great day. The prize giving saw Rachael walk away with a trophy on account of coming in third in her age group, an incredible achievement and one that serves as an inspiration to the rest of us to continue training and racing hard. With the day finally coming to a close, it was time to pick up our bikes and various sundries, head on back up the hill, leaving Tri Rock Durban behind for this year and contemplating a return next year for more of the same (well, maybe calmer seas). An initial detour via Rachael and Phillipe’s for celebratory nibbles and champagne was in order and after suitably toasting the success of our trip Trace and I headed back to Kloof where another amazing meal awaited, as well as a much needed and well deserved sleep.
Rest & Recuperation
My flight was due to leave Monday evening, meaning a late afternoon check-in. This allowed us to all take a short trip inland, away from the surf, beyond Pietermaritzburg in order to check out some of the Midlands region of Natal province, and to also take Trace’s 95 year old grandmother out for lunch. If I am as spritely and vivacious at that age as she is then I will be a very pleased man indeed. The trip started with a visit to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site museum, where we learnt more about the man that would go on to lead South Africa out of the clutches of apartheid, and to look out over the beautiful surrounding countryside beyond the extremely cool sculpture that depicts Nelson Mandela’s face but only once you get close to it and stand in a certain spot. Very clever. The next stop was a fantastic farm shop for some supply shopping, including my new favourites of biltong and koeksisters, and a cheeky little local samosa (incredible!) as an appetiser before our main meal of the day with Trace’s gran. The venue for our lunch was a working microbrewery in the town of Hilton, with the generous beers poured fresh almost directly from the brewing vats themselves. Yet again the food was epic and I felt myself lamenting a little at the fact that I was to shortly leave all of this and return to life as normal back home. Still, that is the nature of travel: one must return. After saying our goodbyes, leaving Rachael and Phillipe to continue their trip up the coast in search of ever more incredible surf breaks, we returned to King Shaka airport where I left Trace to another day of South African fun and disappeared to find my plane home. An amazing trip, with incredible people, both those I knew from home and new friends met and made in South Africa, all with some great memories of my return to my roots.
FINAL RACE RESULTS:
Finished in 5 HOURS, 23 MINUTES, 47 SECONDS
Swim (including run to transition): 40 mins 40 s
Bike: 2 hrs, 52 mins, 57 s
Run: 1 hr, 38 mins, 33 s
If you would like to continue following the training and racing exploits of Chris as he prepares for his new challenge of racing Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015, then you can do so via the website www.ironvet.net or via the Facebook page, Ironvet 2014. Similarly, if you would like to donate to the WVS and support Chris’ chosen charity in this challenge, then you can do so at www.justgiving.com/ironvet.
I should be writing this as a newly anointed Ironman, a member of a group of insane individuals who think nothing of putting themselves through a day of hell with a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle and topped off with a marathon for good measure. Alas, in spite of being as prepared as it is possible to be, it ultimately came down to an idiot with a match to bring the whole dream crashing down. Or should that be, somewhat ironically, extinguished?!
As the race approached training reduced in overall volume and intensity but in a bid to better prepare for the high altitude of Lake Tahoe, and the even higher parts of the bike course, I worked with the team over at Talise Fitness, Madinat to make use of their altitude room. This meant that I was able to train on both the turbo trainer and treadmill at the equivalent of 3500 metres above sea level, significantly higher than any part of the Ironman course I would be racing. Although the evidence I could find questioned the real physiological impact of such training on truly enhancing performance at real altitude, the psychological boost of knowing that I had experienced more than I would be facing in the real race, and that I was easily able to cope and even excel made all the difference and more than justified the exercise. I came to really enjoy the routine of arriving at the Madinat, greeting the friendly valet team, before receiving puzzled looks from hotel guests as I wheeled my road bike over to Talise, where I signed in, becoming known as “that Chris Queen!” before diving into the low oxygen atmosphere of the room where I’d remain for the session, in the company of my own thoughts and the various artists of MTV. I was genuinely saddened when my sessions had run their course and it was time to bid farewell to the team, and know that I would no longer be able to start or end my days making use of the luxurious facilities on offer.
The Final Countdown
The final week is incredibly nerve-wracking before any big race, especially one for which so much preparation has been poured into. As such, it is normal to become somewhat anxious and even paranoid about anything that could pose a risk to your race. People getting ill at work, to reports of possible Icelandic volcanic eruptions, to simple traffic near misses – a regular, normal occurrence in Dubai – they all serve to heighten the sense of countdown as you will the date that you finally board the plane for the race closer. In addition, it seemed as though every patient I saw that last week was excessively aggressive, with a dog bite and a cat mauling to add to the pre-race trials. Needless to say I survived this anxious period, upping my vitamin C intake and being even more eagle eyed on the roads than usual. The fact that packing nearly killed me is normal. I loathe packing for any trip and when the luggage also includes a race-ready bike to be dismantled, wrapped and packed, then my stress levels do tend to peak. I think for future races I shall incorporate ‘packing training’ into my programme!
Flight day finally arrived and the issue of how to lug my considerably sized bike box to the airport was solved by a good friend of mine who sacrificed sleep to ensure I made it to the airport for stupid o’clock. Check-in was anything but simple, initially due to the fact that I was acting as a chaperone for two rescue Salukis who were being relocated to new homes in the US by a local rescue group. The real drama, however, was when the friendly check-in assistant asked me if I had applied to “Esther.” “Sorry, who?” was my swift, puzzled response. “Who is Esther?!” Apparently a special visa known as an ESTA is required for entry into the US, something that I had completely overlooked in preparing for my trip. Visions of missing my flight, homeless dogs and the entire IronVet challenge crashing down in an instant formed in my mind and my response was to hastily enquire, with clear panic in my voice, whether I was able to apply for this visa now, as in right now?! Thankfully it was possible, although I had only fifty minutes in which to do it and had to somehow get access to the website. With my phone choosing the worst possible time to ignore any available internet connections I desperately wracked my brains for options, ultimately plumping to inconvenience the same friend yet again in the same morning. Thanks to her exceptionally good humour, speedy typing and credit card I had my application in, confirmation back and clearance to enter the US within thirty minutes. Phew!
With disaster averted we rejoined the check-in queue, by now significantly longer, and were soon ushered through ahead of others due to the fact that our particular flight was due to leave soon. It should have been plain sailing from there but we chose the new team member who also happened to have a clear dislike of dogs and no idea of what to do about checking them in. Further delay and by now some very anxious foot-tapping and thoughts again of missed flights and ruined trips. In the true spirit of the morning so far, however, we were finally checked in, bike, bags and dogs whisked away and I raced through security and on to my gate.
The US of A
A good fifteen hours, two and a half movies, some passable food and even less convincing amounts of sleep later and we touched down in California, where I collected the two dogs, looking relatively relaxed after what I suspect was a way more stressful trip than mine, and ventured out to meet the contacts for the pooches, leaving them to their new homes as I went off in search of a car. Fast forward 30 minutes and with my new Jeep fully loaded, Tahoe programmed in and a sense of real excitement, headed off over the Bay bridge, leaving downtown San Francisco behind, as Oakland and then Berkeley beckoned. One major issue with the bay area, I soon discovered, was the traffic. So much traffic! The first two hours of the trip were simply spent in crawling traffic, meaning that the chances of making it to Tahoe in daylight were zero, and with jet lag very much setting in I made the executive decision to stop for the night, before then making a super early start for the mountains.
Fire & Arsonists
I had heard reports shortly before leaving Dubai of issues with wildfires in Northern California, and one in particular that was raging a short distance away from Tahoe and that was apparently threatening the race itself. The facts became clearer as I neared Tahoe, with thick smoke present, being blown into the area by prevailing winds, and shrouding the entire region in thick, noxious smoke for the past few days. The day I actually arrived the winds had settled and it was relatively clear for the first two days, although it was still clear that the air was not what it should be, and the ever present smell of barbecue was evident. Still, if things stayed as they were then the race would still be able to proceed. Wildfires are unfortunately a difficult fact of life for those living in Northern California, with conditions this year apparently even worse due to the very dry summer, but the fact is that the fire affecting Tahoe was set intentionally. The idiot in question is, at the time of writing, in prison and deservedly so, with the disruption, damage, danger and loss at so many levels being staggeringly huge.
Sign In & Final Preparations
Once I was settled into my super sweet home for the week – a three bedroom alpine chalet with views out over Lake Tahoe, towards the Eastern shoreline and Nevada – it was time to head on over to Squaw Valley, host of the 1960 Winter Olympics and the site of the bike to run transition and finishing chute for the race. As I drove along the valley to the actual village it was clear to see why Ironman had chosen this particular site for the finish – breathtaking beauty and a truly stunning backdrop, an outstanding display on this particular day without the smoke to obscure the views. If conditions stayed clear then the finish promised to be a truly spectacular experience.
The first stop was the bike wheel hire stand, where my wheels were swapped over to a pair of Zipps – 404 on the front and 808 on the rear – which if anything did give my bike a race-ready makeover and helped to really get me into a race frame of mind. Registering was a straightforward affair and with my race number secured, chip, swim cap and various transition and special needs bags in hand, I was able to really start mentally and physically preparing for the challenge ahead.
It is one thing reading about and viewing a race course online, either in race documentation or on You Tube, but to see it and experience it first hand is the true test. The swim stage of this particular race was to be a 2 lap loop in the cool, crystal clear waters of the lake, just off King’s Beach, a gently sloping and popular public swimming area a few kilometres up the shore from Tahoe City, a beautiful little town nestled on the shore of the lake and my base for the week. Once out of the water, the bike leg of the race was to be a two and a third loop route initially heading along the shore to Tahoe City, before snaking along Olympic Valley, past Squaw Valley and over to the town of Truckee, a small town nestled within the valley and framed by the Truckee river, the only outflow from the mighty Lake Tahoe. Once through the town, the cycle route opens up onto a beautiful plain with the imposing climb of Brockway, with the alpine village of Northstar as the first target, rising in both a majestic and intimidating fashion ahead. The long, steady climb to the summit of Brockway, at an elevation of 7,200 feet (a vertical climb from the shoreline of 1000 feet), would really have tested the climbing stamina of athletes before the reward of several kilometres of exhilarating descent to return to Kings Beach and the start of the next loop. Once athletes had summited Brockway twice, the third loop was to take them left at Squaw Valley and into transition for the final big test of the day: the marathon. Running out of Squaw and out towards Tahoe City along the bike path tracing the Truckee river, athletes were to complete two laps, turning on the outskirts of town, keeping eyes peeled for the plethora of wildlife species for whom the area is home, including bears and coyotes. With the sun setting (assuming that the finish was in sight within the twelve to thirteen hour range) the finish line would have come into sight, the towering peaks overlooking Squaw Valley being the backdrop to a truly memorable and epic feat. The Ironman Lake Tahoe course is revered for being one of the toughest on the circuit, and with good reason. If the high altitude doesn’t sap the energy of athletes then the two loops up and over Brockway is sure to test anyone’s endurance before the run. Anyone completing this race can truly claim bragging rights and feel worthy of the title ‘Ironman.’
The Drama Climaxes
I arrived in Tahoe on Friday, with the race scheduled for the Sunday. According to locals and athletes who had been present since early in the week, the preceding two days had been truly awful, with thick smoke shrouding the entire area, making visibility atrocious and breathing laboured and unpleasant. Racing in anything close to such conditions would have been an impossibility. It was with a deep sense of relief and renewed optimism then that the winds shifted direction on Friday and Saturday, keeping the smoke at bay and offering a glimpse of what could have been, albeit with a lingering scent of charred wood still clinging stubborning to the air. Still, if the smell of barbecue was the most we had to contend with on race day then we could certainly live with that; anything as long as the race went ahead as planned.
I took the opportunity in the two days leading up to the race to test out the still waters of the lake, bracing myself for what I had been assuming for the past year would be truly icy and biting conditions. I was, therefore, very pleasantly surprised to discover that far from being freezing, the water was refreshingly cool, almost unbelievably clean and crystal clear, allowing a rapid appreciation of how precipitously the shoreline suddenly drops to incredible depths. I followed a short swim past moored boats and a packed shoreline restaurant with a relaxed and pleasant run along part of the bike path that circumnavigates the entire lake, appreciating the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and mentally recapping the past year of preparation that had brought me from a mere idea and a dream to be physically present in Northern California about to put myself through the single day for which so much had been invested.
It was with a sense of sudden foreboding then that we felt another shift in the wind and, much like a dementor scene from Harry Potter, the hazy smoke started its creeping reinvasion of the area. With kit prepared, bike in transition and special needs bags sitting ready and waiting to be dropped off in the morning, I enjoyed a pre-race dinner with a visiting friend, all the while quietly praying to Mother Nature to shift the winds once more and allow the race to proceed. It looked less and less likely that this was to be the case, however, as I woke several times during the night, both due to normal pre-race nerves but also due to smoke which had managed to pervade even my room. The race organisers had announced that they would be making their decision on whether the race would be staged by Saturday evening so with no word to the contrary it appeared as though we were still set to test ourselves as Ironmen. Waking up on race morning and driving to Squaw Valley, from where we were all scheduled to catch buses to the swim start, it seemed even worse than anyone had imagined, with choking smoke enveloping the entire valley. Still, no one was even contemplating not racing and, again, with no official announcement to suggest otherwise we all bristled with excited energy as we chatted en route to Kings Beach and the start of the day.
I felt surprisingly calm during the final couple of hours, safe in the knowledge I think of having fully prepared my kit, including a very well stocked nutrition stockpile and special needs provisions that had been curated with the trusted advice of both my coach and friend, a seasoned long distance runner and champion in her discipline. Aware of the fact that there was no more athletic training to do I simply switched my thoughts to executing my plan for each stage, focusing on each individual discipline in turn and reminding myself that no matter what was to happen, this day was above all else a fun experience and one to be cherished, pain and all. As such, I stepped out onto the beach, goggles in hand, with a sudden surge of real genuine excitement at hearing the starting pistol….
…then disaster. The race, it was announced, had been called off. Cancelled. The reason given was, as anticipated, the unhealthy levels of smoke in the air making the conditions hazardous to human health. In spite of hearing the words and knowing at gut level that the decision was the only sensible one to be made, the sense of disbelief was palpable. So much so that most of us, myself included, simply ambled back towards transition almost expecting a second announcement to be made telling us that a terrible error had been made and that the race was to go ahead after all. No such follow-up came and so as quickly as excitement had peaked, a crushing sense of anticlimax washed through the crowd. We had come as close to starting the race as was possible, with some athletes already in the water and the pros literally under starter’s orders, and yet it had been snatched away. That was it. Our race was over before it had started and a year of preparation, it suddenly seemed, had amounted to nothing. Some athletes, whether through a sense of not wishing to accept that which had been stated or, more likely, on account of needing an immediate outlet for the caffeine induced energy about to burst out of them, completed the swim course and I later saw people out on bikes and running, in spite of the choking smoke that gradually crept as far as Tahoe City itself. In hindsight I wish I had at least dived in and completed even one lap of the swim loop, but in my sense of numb disbelief I simply did what most did and collected my things before boarding the buses for a return to Squaw Valley, by then almost invisible on account of the noxious smoke blown in from King County. A return trip with my bike to take back the wheels, an expensive 24 hours of mere decoration as it transpired, and I turned my back on Squaw Valley for the last time during my trip, left to wonder what if and contemplate whether or not I would be returning the next year to legitimately claim my finishers medal. Talking of medals, the ones that we were due to receive at the finish were left out for us to pick up, an exercise that had carried a sad sense of fraud about it. I collected one, more out of simply following the herd than actually wanting one, and even now I look at it with a deep sense of sadness, anger and disentitlement at being in possession of it. Why had Ironman even made them available?! It seemed wrong that there were two thousand medals out there, awarded for a race that was never staged and owned now by people for whom they simply serve as painful reminders of a shattered dream.
As everyone came to terms with the reality that the selfish actions of one single grown man with an unhealthy obsession with fire had ultimately led to not only the cancellation of the biggest event in our collective calendars, but had also decimated local peoples’ lives, thoughts turned to the response of the WTC, the owners of the Ironman brand, and what they would do about the cancellation. I, like most other athletes I had spoken with, naturally assumed that the most obvious and likely reaction of the organisers would be to automatically guarantee each and every one of us free entry to the following year’s race. Alternatively, offering the option to register for another race, especially those that were being staged shortly, seemed obvious, especially considering that everyone in Tahoe was fit, race ready and raring to go. It had been suggested to me that I could look at the options of either entering Ironman Malaysia, due to run the next weekend, or, staying in the US, Ironman Chattanooga, Tennessee. I did look into both options, the former being ruled out first and foremost on account of the obscenely expensive cost of flights from the US, but I had already told myself that I still wanted to race Tahoe, meaning that a focus on the upcoming half distance races I had already booked and then resuming training for 2015 was my preferred course of action.
Disappointed then is what I would describe my feelings at seeing the response of the WTC to the cancellation of our race. We were indeed being given the option of either registering for next year’s Tahoe race or a select alternative race (available slots dependent) but there would be a charge of $100 for the pleasure. A charge?! I am not naive and realise that there would have been costs associated with organising and staging the race even though it was subsequently cancelled but I also firmly believe that an organisation the size of the WTC will a) have insurance in place to hedge against the chance, even remote as it is, of a cancellation, and b) consider the potential goodwill it would generate in the face of such universal disappointment by making a grand gesture of the kind that waiving any sort of fee would clearly have created. The fact that they decided to impose a charge, even a relatively low charge of $100, suggests a misunderstanding of their market. The very fact that the fee was relatively low further suggests to me that they could easily have extended a generous branch to their athletes, especially given how profitable the brand is overall. I, like many others who turned up eager to race this year, have subsequently paid the requisite fee (including an additional credit card handling fee, to add a small insult to injury) and thus registered for next year’s race, something that I expect Ironman knew we would ultimately do, such is the strength of the desire to complete a target race. I have been in touch with them, have had my say and in the end have coughed up the readies, so the focus is now on moving on and preparing for next year’s race. With ice the first year and now fire this year, it will be interesting to see what happens next. My sincere hopes are for a calm Mother Nature, a wet winter and ultimately an epic race two years in the making!
The Final Days Stateside
With the race cancelled, there was at least the silver lining of being able to enjoy an unexpected breakfast with my friend, Alicia, who had made the trip up from San Francisco for the previous day but would not have been able to stay for the race. It did seem, on reflection, as though the entire project had been carrying bad omens from the start, with the first stroke of bad luck being that a good friend of mine, who had been due to travel up from San Diego with his girlfriend to spend the week in Tahoe with me, was taken suddenly very ill and was thus unable to travel. As such, I was set to finish the race solo and then spend the rest of the week on my todd, in hindsight not the best experience. Secondly there was the fire. Seriously! What were the chances of there being one deranged idiot choosing to set a fire in that exact area of California at that exact time of the year, and for the winds to then be in that specific direction meaning that smoke was to blow in?!
The rest of the week went by relatively swiftly and in spite of still having fun, as determined as I was to not let the race fiasco totally ruin my trip, including an epic morning wake boarding and wake surfing on a perfectly flat lake, the smoke remained and did certainly hinder much in the way of serious activity, including an aborted attempt to ride the Ironman cycle route. I drove it instead and was soon glad I called time on the attempt, with thick smoke across the Truckee valley. I also decided to call short my entire trip, as I had initially been due to spend three weeks in the US. Due to various factors, the race being the final one, I decided to rather save my holiday, with the intention of regrouping and focusing on a repeat attempt next year. A brief stop in San Francisco, where the air was noticeably fresher, and it was back on a plane, barely a full week after I initially arrived. Certainly hadn’t seen that one coming! Life has a weird way of testing each and every one of us and it seemed that I was to be tested this year, with this and subsequent trials yet to be thrown my way being life’s apparent plan for me. Roll on 2015 is all I can say 🙂
If you would like to continue following the training and racing exploits of Chris as he prepares for his new challenge of racing Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015, then you can do so via the website www.ironvet.net or via the Facebook page, Ironvet 2014. Similarly, if you would like to donate to the WVS and support Chris’ chosen charity in this challenge, then you can do so at www.justgiving.com/ironvet.