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 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.