Tag Archives: half ironman

Rise to the Challenge – Challenge Bahrain 2014

Rise to the Challenge

Claire & Chris in BahrainEverything great starts with a vision. The key then is turning that initial vision into reality and matching the power of the imagined. So it was that Challenge Bahrain, the first big internationally ‘branded’ triathlon in the Middle East came to be. Inspired by the vision and desire of Crown Prince Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a gifted age-group triathlete himself, to bring a big triathlon to the shores of Bahrain, the promise of a world class event was realised as thousands arrived in the Kingdom to race, meet their heroes and celebrate a rip roaring success.

With a total prize purse of half a million US dollars, and each of the professional winners walking away with $100,000 as first prize, Challenge Bahrain was always going to attract the big names in our sport and the sight of such legends as Mirinda Carfrae standing on stage alongside the giants of triathlon during the race briefing offered a taste of what was to come.

Registration at Challenge Bahrain
Registration at Challenge Bahrain

I personally arrived in Bahrain on Thursday morning, meeting up with a friend who had flown over from freezing cold Britain in order to take part in only her second half distance race and the first overseas. With a warm welcome from the very start, confirming that which I had been told about the warm, friendly nature of the Bahraini people, the first task, after reassembling bikes in our upgraded suite at the Grand Mercure hotel, was to catch one of the many shuttle buses laid on throughout the weekend down to the Bahrain International Circuit, a hugely impressive Grand Priz stage, to register, collect our pre-race pack, soak up the atmosphere of the exhibition, partake in a little tri-related shopping, and enjoy the incredible reception and amazing fare on offer at what has to have been the best pasta party ever. As soon as we were handed our race bags it was clear that no expense had been spared in staging this race, with everyone receiving proper transition bags, complete with goodies. In fact, the bags alone made flying to Bahrain worth it!

Registering at Challenge BahrainA friend had, with a wry smile, informed me that I had been placed in the first age-group wave to start on race day, those athletes expected to finish in under 4 hours 40 minutes. A joke I had initially thought until I opened the race programme to see that I had indeed been placed in the ‘speedy’ cohort. Quite how that had happened remains a mystery because even with pre-registration there is no way I would have been so cocky as to predict a time for myself of that level – I hadn’t even raced a half iron distance event before at the time of signing up. Still, the chance to start the swim with the likes of the Crown Prince himself meant that I was in no rush to correct the organisers and so it remained that I found myself lining up on race morning with the true speedsters of the sport, contemplating a few what-ifs as I vowed to go significantly faster than my Dubai race the month before.

Practice Dip & Racking

Practice swim in Bahrain Bay
Practice swim in Bahrain Bay

Friday started early, with a short shuttle bus trip over to Bahrain Bay, with the impressive Four Seasons hotel and Bahrain Trade Centre framing either side of T1 and the venue for Saturday’s swim. The course couldn’t have been simpler, taking swimmers out in a straight line to one of the bridges spanning the bay, before a right hand turn to return to the swim ramp and on into T1 and the bikes. The practice swim offered us all the chance to get our bearings in the cool, refreshing waters, even swimming over to the Four Seasons pontoon for a spot of coffee and dates, an inspired addition and one of many examples of the fine attention to detail that had been applied to this event. They had even put on a decent spot of breakfast for athletes in the morning, something that they would have been advised to publicise a little more before the practice swim. Still, another classy little touch.

T1 at Challenge Bahrain
T1 at Challenge Bahrain

Bike racking took place back at the bay and so following a leisurely bite to eat in our new favourite eatery, Loomi, we hopped on another shuttle bus, this time with bikes in tow, for the short journey back to the bay and one of the most professional transitions that I have had the pleasure to see. It even made IM Lake Tahoe’s seem a tad grubby. It was encouraging to see just how seriously the officials took features of the event like pre-rack bike checking, with even the pros not immune to the bark of “helmet on!”

T1 at Challenge BahrainWith the bike and helmet in place and our run bags, which were due to be taken over to T2 at the Grand Prix circuit, handed in – it always feels wrong handing over important race kit in a bag to a stranger, even though you know it will be seen again – we hopped back on the bus, returned to the hotel and started getting psyched for the big day itself, including the ritual of applying race number tattoos. Based on previous experience of tattoos on leg hair, I opted this time to commit to the cause by creating a couple of ‘runways’ on my legs and arms down which my tats could run unimpeded. A good move even if it does now mean I have rectangular ‘bald patches’ which to a non-triathlete might look a little odd. I personally headed back out again in the evening, taxiing it over to the Sheraton where Nick Potter had organised a Tri Dubai get together for dinner. It was a great way to simultaneously get pumped for the race whilst also distracting from the same with some fun conversation with both familiar and new faces. Everyone had their own race in mind and it is always really exciting hearing how different people found themselves getting into triathlon in the first place, let alone getting into the longer distance races. Some good food – avoiding the temptation to get creative or spicy the night before the race – and it was time yet again to roll on back to the Mercure, turn in for the night, safe in the knowledge that I would probably sleep a fraction of what I wanted to but would still be up and raring to go come the small hours.

Race Day!

Early morning Bahrain BayAnd so it was! Up before the alarm, kit donned and a decent pre-race breakfast, courtesy of the kind kitchen team at our hotel who set up before 5am for us. I love the buzz before a race and the excitement was palpable as we reached transition, finalised our bike set-up, including making new friends of the closest person with a track pump. I followed the lead of the athlete racked next to me by moving my bike to the very end of our rack as there was a decent 3 metre section that was unoccupied and thus unhindered in terms of easy view after the swim. We did check with the officials that such a move was ok and in the end it was a smart one, as my bike was one of the easiest to find in transition.

The final hour before the race start involved checking in with fellow Dubai-based athletes and supporters, topping up the 5am nutrition, braving the loos – it doesn’t seem to matter how ‘no expenses spared’ an event is; the loos are always gross – and then watching the pros kick off their races, complete with helicopters hovering overhead and the boom of the start cannon echoing out over Bahrain Bay. This was definitely going to be a big day!

There is a certain art to timing the final donning of a wetsuit and unfortunately I was a little premature with mine, as was everyone else. In spite of an initially cool morning, ten minutes of waiting in the pre-start pen fully neoprened-up was enough to invoke a decent sweat and so when the go-ahead was given to jump in the bay for our short warm-up and eventual start I suspect there was a collective sigh of relief. Seeing the pros exit the swim was the final treat before our start, as I ambled down the ramp penguin style with the rest of my sub-4:40 cohort 🙂 The benefit of the race having a relatively small total field (1000 triathletes) was that each wave was actually quite small, meaning plenty of space at the swim start and less of the ‘washing machine’ that is typical of many big races with mass starts.

The canon seemed to go off almost with no warning and before we knew it legs were kicking and arms cycling as our race began. My initial plan to get on the feet of the main pack and stick with them quickly gave way to ‘swim my own swim’, ensuring I did sight regularly in spite of the course being pretty straight. I was generally happy with the entire swim, veering off course slightly down the return leg, but exited up the ramp feeling as though I had done myself justice, in spite of swallowing a decent volume of the bay halfway through the swim, which simply made me look forward to getting a drink on the bike! Post-race showers and a run up the red carpet were more of the fine touches that made this race great, and after picking up my bike bag it was straight into the changing tent where helpers assisted with the removal of wetsuits and donning of shoes. As ever, my T1 could have been quicker but I did find myself feeling a little dizzy in T1, so took a few more moments to complete the change. Still, once the shoes were on I made the short run to my bike, clipped on the helmet and ran down the bike funnel feeling limber and eager to get peddling. Hearing shouts of support from Taka and Jo at the mount line gave me a good boost as I clipped in and rolled away to start the cycle leg.

The 90km bike route initially took us north-west, towards the airport and over the first of two big bridges to be traversed that day. Being out on the roads as a motorist that morning would not have been fun as long queues of traffic contrasted sharply with our wide, open and clear lanes as we enjoyed the long, smooth track that stretched out in front. My plan for the race was to keep my heart rate about about 165 bpm, although in reality it tended to sit a little higher at 170. This did mean that I wasn’t the fastest on the bike route and as usual, I was overtaken marginally more than I overtook, including seeing Merle Talviste rocket past on the climb up the second big bridge taking us back towards Manama. I knew by the way she was cycling that she mean’t business and was out to win her age group, a feat she duly achieved, confirming her status as an incredibly talented, dedicated and determined triathlete. The much anticipated tail winds that there had been much talk of never really materialised on the day, with a mixture of head and tailwinds being more prevalent. I wouldn’t have described the middle 50km as being a particularly inspiring cycle ride, with the majority of it basically being on the main King Faisal highway, but what it lacked in pure aesthetic enjoyment it made up for simply with the fact that we had an entire major highway closed off for our race, something that rarely happens and which allowed for a fast race. The final part of the cycling took us past some of the oil fields, the university and past the F1 track and Al Areen wildlife park, before doubling back and returning to enter the Grand Prix circuit for our single loop of the racetrack. Everyone commented that although the experience was incredible – after all, how often do you really get to cycle on a world class F1 circuit?! – there were steeper sections to the track than had been imagined. I think we all admitted to positioning ourselves to the right of the track as we approached the start line, imagining ourselves in pole position on our very own mean machines. With one final set of sweeping turns, T2 loomed into view and our bikes were swiftly taken from us as we ran into transition, our bags handed to us (another very slick touch), thus allowing for a rapid T2 and the start of the run.

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I love the run. Maybe not the immediate start, as with any triathlete, but by the time we hit kilometre five I normally find my second wind and really start to feel good. The aid stations were plentiful and spaced roughly every two kilometres meaning that there was a ready and steady supply of coke, water (which I tended to pour over myself more than drink, as aware as I was of not overhydrating or having a belly full of fluid sloshing around) and iced sponges, which I made a staple part of my run arsenal, sticking one under each shoulder strap thus cooling the blood heading up and down my neck and maintaining my heart rate at a steady 170bpm. This approach allowed me to pick up the pace steadily during the early stages, continuing the acceleration as we entered the wildlife park and allowing me to start doing some serial overtaking, which always helps boost confidence and energy levels even in the final stages of the race. The highlight of the run through the park for me was seeing an ostrich charging around, including across the running track in very close proximity to athletes, something that simply would never be allowed by the Health & Safety brigade back in the UK. I was genuinely expecting at least one runner to be taken out by Mr Ostrich and as much as I found it both intriguing and entertaining in equal measure, I was also sure to keep a cautious eye out for where exactly our feathered rampager might be, as keen as I was to avoid being the athlete to make the headlines for the wrong reason.

Avian dangers aside, the run was great and as I exited the wildlife park, feeling well into my stride by that point, the thoughts of the finish line started forming in my mind and the pace began to pick up as the home stretch beckoned. Compared to Dubai a month before, I found the run relatively cool, although I know that my friend from the UK, Claire, will probably kick me for saying so, given that she found the temperature stifling. Digging in for the last couple of kilometres is a bittersweet experience I find: your mind is almost already over the finish line and so it is key to keep it engaged in the present. The race is not finished yet and so it is imperative to keep pushing and to not relax too prematurely. That’s why I think the starting and finishing kilometres are the hardest. The middle is actually relatively straightforward: you know that you’ve got a lot of work still to do so you just put your head down and get on with it. The start involves a lot of readjusting to being in an upright position, and the discomfort that goes with getting into a good pace off the bike, whilst the end is, well, so close to the actual end!

One of the final sections of the run took us down an underpass at the F1 circuit, with the downhill being fine. The uphill, on the other hand….OUCH! Who thought it was kind to make us run up that gradient in the dying stretches of the race?! Lol! At least it was short. So, small but testing climb later and we came out onto the home stretch, or the start of the longest finishing chute ever. The carpet started just alongside the bike transition and I know I wasn’t the only one to get sucked into thinking that it was shorter than it was. Pace quickened for the finish, heart rate racing up, cheers from the assembled crowds. But wait…. where was the actual finish line? It seemed to me as though the initial carpeted chute ran on for a long way and by the time I came to the loop around, taking me on to the final final finish chute, with the line itself in view, I was a little concerned I’d overcooked it. Still, there is always a little extra to be dragged up from the depths for the finish and with the end now finally in sight I lapped up the experience, even ensuring a little cheeky pose for Taka and his camera as I ran past. A slowing before the line, arms up and it was done! Challenge Bahrain – or my one at least – was done. But the process of being impressed wasn’t.

Challenge Bahrain finishThe finish was suitably theatrical, with all the ceremony that you’d expect from a really big race, and as for the medal: it was HUGE! If the past two races are anything to go by, with the rate at which the medal sizes are going, the next race medal will be the size of a hubcap! Let’s just say the Challenge Bahrain medal was going to potentially put my hold luggage oversize and was definitely not going to be allowed on as hand luggage, given the intricate, angled lines of the design. An awesome puffer jacket, followed by some good sustenance and a few super-fan snaps with the pros, saw my race topped off in excellent fashion.

Claire finishing Challenge BahrainClaire came in a little later and after collecting up our bikes and sundries, joined the rest of the athletes in catching our buses back to a well earned shower and short rest, with a return to the Grand Prix circuit a little later on for the prize giving, dinner and the piece de la resistance of the weekend: a breathtaking firework display and live music from none other than Dire Straits!

Merle and Chris at Challenge BahrainThe Dubai contingent did an epic job, claiming a healthy number of the age-group prizes, and it was fantastic to see so many friends in Bahrain both competing and supporting. The triathlon scene here in the Middle East just seems to be going from strength to strength and with dedicated patronage from supporters such as the Crown Prince and with big names such as Challenge on board, exciting is the word. The announcement of a Triple Crown event, with Challenge Bahrain, Dubai AND Oman making up a trio of top races for the region, with a top prize for the pros of $1,000,000, just confirmed that the Middle East is serious about being a top venue for top races. I feel very fortunate to be living, training and racing here at such a time and look forward to seeing the sport go from strength to strength, like so much over here.

So….. next on the Challenge calendar: Challenge Dubai. Let’s see if I can shave off that pesky minute and get under the 5 hour mark!

FINAL RACE RESULTS:
Swim 1.9km = 0:32’12
T1 = 0:03’58
Cycle 90km = 2:48’01
T2 = 0:02’21
Run 21.1km = 1:34’28

TOTAL TIME = 5:01’00
(174th out of 804 finishers
144th out of 622 men
24th out of 106 M30-34)

Dubai International Triathlon 2014 – Photos

A few shots from Dubai International Triathlon 2014

Dubai International Triathlon 2014

Triathlon Just Got Bigger!

Just when you think the triathlon scene here in the UAE couldn’t get any bigger, a race comes along that reminds you that it can. And it did. In impressive style.
transition, triathlon
Atlantis glimmers in the background, as transition awaits the athletes the night before DIT

The inaugural Dubai International Triathlon, the brainchild and labour of love of some very forward thinking local triathletes and RaceME, finally arrived on Friday the 7th November, starting and finishing at The Atlantis Hotel, Palm Jumeirah, about as grand a setting as one can get. Every one of us training, racing and generally immersing ourselves in the tri scene here has been eagerly awaiting this race for many months, and you could certainly feel the buzz of excitement as the final days of waiting approached. From chatter about the potential bike route to concerns about the threat from jellies, the digital lines were humming with everyone talking about just one race.

Team SuperTri at DITPersonally this race took on a greater level of importance in my calendar on account of the disappointment in Tahoe. The two halves that I had already scheduled (Dubai and Bahrain next month) have became very much my short term focus and with a nice new TT bike, some decent kit (and a non-coincidental hole in my bank account) and feeling fit and strong off the back of some great coaching I was really feeling pumped for this race. I opted to collect my race pack and rack my bike on the Thursday evening before the race, although the option to collect packs was also available on Wednesday evening, and with a very clear and actually quite comical and entertaining race brief we all went away willing the next few hours of sleep (for those of us who could actually muster any) to pass swiftly so that we could get this thing underway. A few (if that) hours of fragmented sleep later, and with my kit all packed since the day before, the only thing to do on race morning, which started at an insanely early 3.30am (unless it’s summer in which case it is late), was prepare drinks and nutrition, suit up and head off to the Palm. Not wanting to give any margin to potential stress beforehand I chose to arrive very early, which afforded plenty of time to set up transition calmly before a relaxed spot of breakfast, a leisurely coffee and time to go through all the usual pre-race rituals. Our new Super Tri suits had arrived the week before and the relatively large number of us representing the team were, in my opinion, looking slick 🙂
DIT SwimSwim
The 1.9km swim took place in the beautifully calm, sheltered waters of the Palm, just off the beach where Sandance usually takes place. With the stunning backdrop of Atlantis to one side, the Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa off in the distance on another, and the lights of Dubai Marina in front, the scene was idyllic, with even a spit of rain and cloud cover that made for a comfortable starting temperature that persisted into the bike.
Focusing in on buoy 1 at the swim start
Focusing in on buoy 1 at the swim start

The first wave to head off from the deep water start included the pros, with a 10 second lead, and were swiftly up on the first of the buoys, one of only two left hand turns on the flattened mushroom-shaped swim course. This may have been the only thing I would have personally suggested changing as there was unfortunately insufficient distance between the start and buoy one to get good separation between athletes. As such, there was some serious congestion at turn 1, the only point where there was any kind of issue. I too found myself caught up in the pause and scramble around the buoy, quickly recovering to find my stride and ultimately have a really great, smooth, comfortable swim. Sighting still remains a bit of an area for improvement and with the back straight of the swim being a fairly long stretch, I know that I swam a deviated course and emerged from the water having covered more than the prescribed race distance. Still, all things told, a good swim and a vast improvement from where I was even a year ago.

Sprinting out of T1Cycle
A short run up the beach and around the back of the Athletes’ Village, all the while being spurred on by the amazing support, which was electric and enthusiastic from the very start, took us from the gently sloping beach exit of the swim to transition, where I quickly found my bike but then spent a little longer than I’d liked to have (always the case) getting kitted up for the ride. Considering the bike was to be 90km I decided that I wished to be comfortable, especially as there was a half marathon to run afterwards. Rinsing off and drying my feet before donning my shoes was therefore something that I chose to do properly as I figure one surefire way to ruin a perfectly good run is to develop a blister. Some may mark me out as being a bit of a wimp for stating such a thing but my retort would be that I had a comfortable ride and a storming run. So there.
After turning left onto the Crescent and quickly followed by having to re-educate someone on the “Stay Left; Pass Right” rule that we’d learn’t only a few hours before and that was signposted at very regular intervals in very BIG lettering, the cycle route took us down into the Palm tunnel, where picking up some great speed was somewhat tempered by the numerous rumble strips and significant risk of bottle and fluid loss. I think I probably involuntarily jettisoned about a third of my drink reservoir contents during this opening stage of the race, whilst then choosing to try and bunny hop the rest of the speed bumps down the trunk. The road leading out of Atlantis and the Palm did resemble a water bottle graveyard, with scores of bottles of various shapes, sizes and expense levels littered all over the road. We had, to be fair, been warned multiple times by the race organisers to secure our drinks yet for many this clearly went unheeded.
Bike course_DIT_IronVetOnce off the Palm, a short stretch along Beach Road took us onto the start of Hessa Street and the first of the aid stations, which were perfectly organised, well stocked and expertly administered. With stations spread out sensibly, our options as we cycled past were, in this order (as far as I can recall): water, Aqualyte (electrolytes), Mule bars (energy), Gu (also energy), and then water again. A loo at the very end was also provided, and I must confess that I availed myself of its services at the start of loop 3 and was glad to have done so. The route then took us all the way up Hessa Street, with a little climbing to do at points, before a fast whip round the Motor City roundabout to start the return, taking a short detour into South Barsha before turning back to Hessa Street to continue back to Dubai College for a total of three complete laps.
IronVet bikeFriday was a pretty windy day and so we were graced with a lovely degree of assistance from Mother Nature on the outward leg only to repay this gesture by cycling straight into the wind from Motor City onwards. There was a noticeable strengthening of the gusts as each loop was ticked off, such that by the third it felt as though we were at very real risk of stopping immediately should we have stopped peddling. As I am sure most people find with longer races, the first out and back was spent getting into a good comfortable rhythm and settling onto the bike after the efforts of the swim; the second just good solid fun as we find ourselves in full flow; and the third and final just a tad on the “OK, I’m sort of over this now” level as legs start to groan a little. I personally could feel my lower back starting to tense up a bit by the time I reached the tunnel leading back towards the Palm, more due a twinge I had developed swimming a couple of days before than the fit of the bike, which was spot on (thanks Barbara Ihrig, TRIPod), and so was keen to see the cycle leg close and get the run underway.
After attempting to set the Palm Tunnel speed camera off – what an AWESOME photo that would be! – there was one final climb of the day before turning back onto the crescent and into T2.
Having fun on the run
Having fun on the run

Run…. And Sweet Victory!

By the time I arrived back at T2 the sun was high in the sky and the heat very noticeable. As expected earlier in the week, the run was going to be a hot affair and so it proved. The two lap loop, each one 11km, took us out of the Atlantis car park, right onto the crescent and out along to the end where the Rixos hotel is situated, before heading back to turn just before the main Atlantis Hotel roundabout and back towards the car park to either do the second loop or turn into the finishing chute. My initial lap was slow, as in almost painfully so, and I definitely walked at the aid stations, which were thankfully spread apart at ideal distances to take full advantage of the ice sponges on hand and which I pretty much kept under the shoulder straps of my tri top for the entire race, refreshing them at each station whilst also slurping down flat coke on more than one occasion. I also started grabbing handfuls of ice from the sponge buckets to suck on as I ran, although called time on the practice near the second turnaround once I saw how filthy the water was becoming in the buckets on account of the sponges being collected off the road and then naturally put back in the bucket. Still, ignorance was bliss and I didn’t end up ill. In fact, thanks to ice sucking and sponges used as shoulder pads, I kept my heart rate sufficiently low to permit a really decent pace on the second lap. If my first lap was slow then my second was lightning, as I literally turned the corner onto lap two and felt something within just roar and energy suddenly surge to my legs. I am not certain of my pace for the second lap as I kept my Suunto on the HR screen, keeping my rate at no more than 165 beats per minute (bpm) for lap 1 and then between 170 and 180 bpm for lap two, permitting it to go to max as I ended the run and basically sprinted. What I am certain of is that I felt awesome on the second loop – it would appear that I have become a slow burner: start sluggish but then finish on fire. One of the most satisfying bits of the second lap was when I ran past some guy who simply uttered, “Shit!” as I stormed by. That was sweet and always makes up for the feeling of slight inadequacy that comes on the bike as people pass me, although I am getting less bothered by this as I know I have a plan and that if I stick to it then I will invariably catch and pass them on the run. Why oh why the energy surge can’t come earlier is a mystery as it would be great to tap into it for the bike, but there you go. My body does what my body does!
Finishing is ALWAYS awesome
Finishing is ALWAYS awesome

A looped course does offer the opportunity to see various friends out on the run, although being across a road, it was difficult to be able to engage too closely with runners heading in the opposite direction. There were a few people I was looking out for but didn’t see, although plenty I did. Stand out examples included Hasan Itani, a real figurehead of triathlon in Dubai, who was looking so strong on the run; Lynette Warne, of Skydive Dubai, always an impressive athlete and once again on the podium; Merle Talviste, who stormed in to win her age group in an awesome time. So many examples of impressive athletes to be inspired by that it is almost inevitable that one improves as a triathlete by simply being in the same airspace as them! Other memorable racers include the guy who I saw running very impressively whilst wearing a cycle helmet. I had initially thought that he might have simply forgotten to remove it in T2 and was just so in the zone that he wasn’t fussed, but later learned that he had apparently had recent brain surgery so was wearing the helmet for essential protection – hardcore indeed! There was also Nick Watson and his son Rio (Team Angel Wolf), who looked to be having as much fun on the day as his dad – a lovely story and, again, an inspiration to us all. Within Super Tri we had heroes, with Rafat Shobaki and Edna Coetser both completing their first ever half iron distance races and doing so in impressive style, being relatively new converts to the great sport of triathlon.

It was fantastic to see so many teams and groups represented in the various suits being worn, from Tri Dubai, a force in the sport here in Dubai, Super Tri, coached by the incredible Trace Rogers, and many others, including Skydive Dubai, whose kit I would love to get my hands on! It was a day of digging deep, overcoming challenges, smashing targets and having fun with friends. Triathlon condensed down to it’s purest ethos.

Rafat and I celebrate with our medals
Rafat and I celebrate with our medals

Given that this was the first event of it’s kind staged in Dubai, and the first organised by the company behind it, RaceME, they would certainly have been forgiven for some slip ups. However, the race was, in my humble opinion, planned, organised and executed to absolute perfection. No stone seemed to be left uncovered, from clear pre-race instructions, to humorous but unambiguous and unmissable signposting, to well located, stocked and managed aid stations, to the medal (OMG, the medal! HUGE is the only way to describe it. I love it!). I sincerely hope the organising team gave themselves a massive collective pat on the back because they deserve it and I for one eagerly look forward to their next event.

It seems now is a particularly great time to be a triathlete in this region and with Challenge Dubai announced the day before (mind you, rather odd timing I must say) and Challenge Bahrain fast approaching, and which I look forward to racing as well, the scene is set for some really classic races and great experiences. Ultimately, however, kudos needs to go to Dubai International Triathlon for lighting the fuse on this exciting movement.

FINAL RACE RESULTS:

Swim 1.9km (incl T1) = 0:38’28

Cycle 90km (incl T2) = 2:56’12

Run 21km = 1:45’01

TOTAL TIME = 5:19’43

Last Minute Iron Success

Last Minute Iron Success

Iron Vet Returns to Roots to Race

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 base for TriRock Durban
The base for TriRock Durban

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.

A bit of IronVet promo work :)
A bit of IronVet promo work 🙂

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.

View from BallitoOur 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.

Swim Fears

Swim practice in Durban, South Africa
Swim practice in Durban, South Africa

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.

Beachtime hanging outYet 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 DurbanTransition 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.

Race Day

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.

Rachael collects her trophy at TriRock Durban 2014
Rachael collects her trophy at TriRock Durban 2014

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

Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture
Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture

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.

Finally! A medal!
Finally! A medal!

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.