District Nine - Pre-Comrades #9 - Up Run 2017

Image result for district 9
In just over a week, I run my 9th Comrades alongside my brother, Alberto. He runs his 14th. A race report may be required. Writing, not only for the catharsis, helps nail down thoughts, elusive and ephemeral, which arise from a physically and emotionally charged day in the life.
With it being my 9th outing, I did a quick search on movies containing the number 9. District 9 was the only real contender to act as a suitable race report title. And it got me thinking....
When District 9 hit the movie circuit in 2009 no-one knew quite how to react. The movie's co-writer and director, little known ex-Joburger Neill Blomkamp, was young and inexperienced. Expectations were low. The backing from Pete Jackson (still cloaked in his Lord of the Rings glory) nudged people to take a closer look.
It's about an alien spaceship which chooses - refreshingly so - to land over Johannesburg, South Africa, resulting in the government establishing an alien district for its newbie second-class citizenry. It oozed originality and grit. What gave it grit, was the parallels with the South African Government's policy of Apartheid and its maltreatment of its people. In particular, it evoked the infamous relocation abuse in the 1970's where the government relocated about 60,000 people from District Six in Cape Town to the Cape Flats 25kms away.
South Africans of all colour wriggled in their movie seats. The rest of the world took notice.
For anyone who has ever been into a pre-1994 South African police station, what gave the documentary-style movie its edge was its protagonist, Wikus van de Merwe, the government appointee responsible for the relocation of the aliens (or prawns). The South African actor, Sharlto Copley, resurrected prickly memories of officials armed with eviction notices and batons.
The movie has traction. Especially in our world of despots building walls and cultivating whatever the English word for Apartheid might be. It is the subtle undertones of racism and xenophobia that get under the skin. To the extent that it calls to mind the tactics engineered by South Africa's current regime in cahoots with its financial exploiters to divert attention away from their pilfering of state coffers. Tactics to muddy-the-water and stir artificial racial discord to the extent of employing a public relations company to assist with the shenanigans.
What does District 9, the Apartheid government, the current Government and any other system of rule have to do with this blogpost and the Comrades Marathon?
The reason is simple. Over time, regimes come and go. And distorted leaders in the pursuit of self serving agendas dust off the blue prints of power and propagate confusion and fear to feed the greed and keep the people down. Artificial constructs to keep people separated, placated and conquerable.
However, and we should not forget this, it is all make believe.
And there is no better day to be reminded of this on the 4th June 2017 - Comrades Marathon Sunday.

The day that confirms that the people are together and will not be kept down. United in their many colours, their many languages, their many creeds, their many tribes. On that day they will come from across the country: the suburbs, the provinces, the townships, the cities. Leaving for Durban from their mines, farms, factories, kitchens and offices by cars, trains, taxis, buses and planes. Some will cycle to the start in red socks all the way from Cape Town. Our friends, Hazel and Tumelo, will run to the start from Joburg. 900kms of running. One Comrades marathon (about 90ks) every day until the start at city hall.

Many will come from far off countries where they have been dreaming about, and planning for, the Ultra of all Ultras for a very long time. The most insane of South African races - soaked in mountains and folklore - which has to be completed to ensure legend status back home.

Nearly all will start the race. Many will finish. And many will not. But what is true is that each year the race unites us. And bring us closer. It becomes more than the sum of its parts. It transcends. And when the choir begins its singing of anthems and worker songs in the race paddocks outside Durban's city hall, with winding roads aiming for Pietermaritzburg, the people understand that when the gun sounds and the smoke clears, that we will not stand for tyranny. Together, with our blood and our sweat and our tears, we will move forward - always forward - and we will remember that no man can divide us. Because us is all we have.

Siyofika nini la' siyakhona? (When will we arrive at our destination?) - Johnny Clegg
Dad and the troops at 48 of the 56k Two Oceans Ultra Marathon

The Making of the Apocalypse Cow Suit

Each year I am bestowed with the honour of creating the suit for the esteemed and select group of cyclists called The Apocalypse Cows. The team trains for four months for one race: the 94.7 cycle challenge. It completes the first loop of 94.7k's in under 3 hours, and the second to help the main herd of Cows and help bring in ten ice cream bikes. It's a 200km day.

So what you wear for one day of the year needs to make an impression. It helps with the fundraising, contributes to the arduousness of the day and is good for morale. This year the theme was Cow Punk. Cow Punk is an underground movement which is a sub genre mixture of Country & Western and (have you guessed yet?) punk. Think harmonicas, electric banjos and the Sex Pistols.

 For many of the Cows, cancer is an adversary that - like it or not - stays close. Like a tattoo. The dude underneath with the collarbone tattoo is Craig. He passed away some years ago. His brother is my friend. And it made sense to commemorate Craig's spirit. So began the idea of a collarbone tattoo on the Apocalypse suit for 2016.

So we took a plain black suit and started throwing around a few designs.

Suit cowification is mandatory in our circles and therefore white and black is generally required.

A sprinkle of cow spots.

And then flames. Of course.

And the collarbone tattoo in honour of Craig. 

The design then goes to my fellow cow, Comrades runner and artist mate, Jess (aka Gerald from www.in-detail.com) who whips the marshmellow ideas from my head into precisely what I was trying to get onto paper in the first place.

With the design done, cool people from Durbs help us finish the suits for race day. 


 And after lots of white knuckles and sweaty brows the suit package is sent with a day to spare.

So with 4 days to go, heads recently shorn and a ribbon bound on the last minute training, the Apocalypse Cows are invited to a dinner and suits, still smelling of fresh fabric and tight stitching, are handed out. 
The suit is revealed.
Image may contain: 1 person, beard
There is only Plan A.

And, finally, Race Day. And to see if the suits are able to weave their magic into Johannesburg. 
From left to right: Brooksie, Matty, Kappies and De Wet (Captain)
The piece-de-resistance helmets were donated by Makro through the efforts of Doug, one of our fellow ACs.
The ACs ride again!
Lap 1 was completed by 17 of the 35 riders in 2h50m.

Group B
 Not everyone could handle the 2.50 pace of the main group. Group B finished in 3hrs flat. With a few stragglers splintered behind.
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RobbyRicc and Warmonger
After loop 1, the team refuelled, regrouped and headed out to help the main herd and ice cream bikes.
Scameltoe's squad
 An example of the team effort required to tug an ice cream bike up a bill.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, shoes and outdoor

Those are two of my brothers ( I have three). Alb on the left. Mucky on the right. Mucky mushroomed on the mountains before the M1 and managed a 3.40-ish Billy-No-Mates ride to the finish. He will return next year to finish his quest for the sub-3 (and maybe a second loop). Alb was banished from the ACs by his wife a few years back and is forced to wear whatever attire the ACs decide until he returns to the team. This year Borat was the outfit selected. 
For 2016, The Cows managed to raise around R2.8m for CHOC who helps kids with cancer.

We must never confuse elegance with snobbery. Over the years I have learned that what is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it. Fashions fade, style is eternal. (Yves Saint Laurent)

Marginal Gains (Lessons from Ironman South Africa)

Cycling teams tweak every component of their training regime. The marginal gains of 1%. Air conditioned buses, massages immediately after a race, weighing nutrition in milligrams, keeping tour fingernails clean. The eventual aggregation of these marginal gains is what they say it takes to be the best in the sport.

[There are the critics who see that as a ruse to deflect from all the doping that's going on in cycling but that's another story altogether.]

This story is for my former self. I see you out there clueless and full of beans. Here is what I learnt between my first Ironman South Africa in 2005 (age 32) and my last in 2016 (age 43). And I thought you should know.

How old is that wetsuit?
For comparative purposes:

My 2005 results:
Swim: 62 mins - T1: 3m28s - Bike: 6h15m - T2: 6m57s - Run: 4h12 - Total: 11h41
Weekly Training average (12 weeks): +/- 7h

My 2016 results:
Swim: 61 mins - T1: 3m06s - Bike: 5h18m - T2: 3m36s - Run: 3h32 - Total: 9h59
Weekly Training average (12 weeks): +/-16h

Now, let's have a look at my 2005 self. I was contracting as a lawyer in London, self-trained, with plenty of time to train, engaged to be married, no kids and no pets.

In 2016? Working as Legal Counsel for a software company in Johannesburg, self-trained, not much time to train, married, 3 kids (5, 7 & 10), two dogs and a goldfish.

Love that 2005 helmet

The 2005 version of me at IMSA

For some perspective, here's a quick example to show you what can happen in the space of a decade.
In 2005, Lance Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France.
In 2016, Lance Armstrong is still banned for life from competing in any cycling event because of doping; is stripped of all his Tour De France titles; three days ago had his ban partially uplifted so that he can now compete in sporting events (other than cycling) as long as it does not qualify him to compete in a national or international championship; and he now runs his own podcast show: The Forward Podcast.

Consider the scene set.

Now what were these marginal gains?

The Training
Start training in September 2015 for the April 2016 race. Build gradually.
Double the normal volume, more or less. No need to overthink it, just get it done.
Focus on 7 weeks only with weekly training hours: 22.15; 22.30; 10.05; 23.30; 21; 11; RACE.
Not every session is a hard session.
Big run mid-week. Big bike on the weekend.
For a few key training rides, get into your biggest gear on a 15-20k stretch and hold that gear. No changing down. No matter if there are hills. Have faith. Be brave. 
Ride with a strong cycling group 3 or 4 times. Learn how to suffer and hang on.
No other races other than Ironman to thwart injury from going too hard.
Always work on form:
- in the pool (crisp tumble turns, 2 x dolphin kicks off the wall, rotate the shoulders, feel the water);
- on the bike (TT position on the road bike and turbo, good circles, use your hamstrings); and
- on the run (light fingers, high cadence, controlled).

The Body
Take your heart rate first thing every morning to keep track of your body's stress levels. Adjust training accordingly.
Yoga to help with the aggressive bike position, keep the hips and lower back loose, to soften the muscles and to centre the mind.
Do work on the big toes. Make sure they are supple and strong.
Massage your feet after sessions. Stretch often. Foam rollers.
Deep breathing in the car. One part inhale, three parts exhale.
Go to sleep early. You can always watch TV on the turbo trainer.

The Equipment
Same wetsuit.
One trisuit.
Skinsuit under the trisuit to help keep the body core cool.
Put lots of shammy cream under the crotch before the race.
Carbon fibre bike instead of aluminium.
Drop the bike's flight deck to as low as it will go.
Narrow the elbow pads to as far as the chest permits.
Choose the normal cycling helmet to aid cooling. Wear the TT helmet and overheat at your own peril.
Rotate three pairs of running shoes for every run to manage wear and tear and avoid injury.
Open race cap to help dissipate heat from top of the head.

Try eat good healthy food only. Fruit, vegetable, nuts, seeds. Avoid everything else. Vegans are onto something. This helps the body bounce back quickly after sessions.
Always have your food prepared beforehand to avoid binging on bad choices.
No alcohol.
No Coke before 100ks on the bike.
Easy on the biscuits.

Where have I seen that wetsuit before?

The Race

Hold back on the swim. Yes, you could be in the first group and your ego will be mightily pleased, however that's not where you should be.
Always swim on a pair of feet.
No accelerations.
Do not burn any matches.
Have a mantra.

Other than your helmet and glasses, everything you need should be on the bike. It saves time.
Cycling shoes attached to your bike with elastics saves time.
Taping food on your bike saves time.

As low as it'll go.
You will never go faster on race day than you did in training. Pace accordingly.
Be brave.
For loop 2, use water from the course to keep cool.
Have a mantra.
This too shall pass.

Be calm and precise.
Spend time getting Vaseline all over your feet.
Get your shoes on as quickly as you can.
Start moving.
Don't overthink about how you feel. That'll change.

Have a mantra.
Have things to think about to stoke the fire.
Hold back for loop 1. Try stay off the Coke for as long as you can.
Stay aware of the race challenges and act accordingly. If it gets hot, don't just melt there. Do something about it. Water over head, sponges for the hot sections, run on the shaded parts of the road.
Don't drink too much. You should have practised this in training.
Make a decision for loop 2.
Loop 3 and 4 are for work.

The Mind
Know your plan. Be prepared to adapt. Don't get greedy.
At some stage everything around you crumbles and you will want to stop. Really really stop. You can never really train the mind or body for that. I find this helps:
Stay in the present. Do not worry about what happened or what is going to happen. Focus on what you can do in that moment to keep going. Focussing on the area of pain and comparing it to what you think child birth might be like usually makes the pain go away. Take one step, then the second. Unclench your fists. Ripple the fingers. Relax your jaw. And when you are moving and realise that you are not going fast enough, you need to have a stern chat with yourself. Remind yourself that your body and mind have trained for this. This feeling of discomfort is why you woke up early and pushed harder. Your body and mind can handle this. They will hold. You need to go beyond this barrier. You can go faster. That time is now. You may never come this way again.
Do not entrust your plan and actions to Fortune or Fate,
Running with my mate, Westie

The Hateful 8 - Comrades 2016

Before the completion of my recent Sub-10 hour Ironman Quest, I anticipated and prepared myself for the abyss that would follow. Cowboys from the Old West had a suitable expression to deal with this hole, "Depression can't keep up with a man on a good fast horse". Winston Churchill called it the Black Dog. Some consider it a category of gloom brought on by endorphin depletion and physical breakdown.

I call it Nothing To Do.
In anticipation, and purely to cover all bases, I downloaded Gabor Mate's book "In the Realm Of Hungry Ghosts". A must read for anyone experiencing the adrenaline doldrums. It's insightful as to how bad things can really get and how to change the light at the end of the tunnel from an oncoming train to an escape hatch. Having managed to brace things into perspective, the post-Ironman South Africa-blue-period was rather pleasant as I eased my running back to speed to conquer the Comrades Down Run alongside my brother, Alberto.  
Bruce Boake, Doug Boake, Stef Riccardi (Manager of Team Riccardi),
Graeme Boake, Trevor and Julia Boake,
RobbyRicc, Alberto Riccardi, Donovan Fraser  Kevin Boake
To kickstart this blogpost, some of you may need some back story. I find it helps. 2015 was my 7th Comrades: a 9h11m up run. To satisfy the intellectual yearnings of my readership, I took blog posting to a new level by linking my seventh Comrades to David Fincher's movie "Se7en". Call me what you will - trailblazer; frontiersman; astro-wizard; smartarse - but I thought that Comrades 2015 blogpost might work. Forever nudging  the boundaries, I decided to continue along that same vein. Once you strike gold, dig deeper.  
Team Riccardi (excluding 4th brother
Marco) trying on Green Number
gear in the forbidden
and  hallowed Green Tent 
The American filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, has been involved in numerous movie projects. However there are only eight Tarantino movies: Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
I thought it uncanny that Tarantino would be on his eighth movie at the same time I was attempting my eight Comrades. Who would have thought? As such, I had to find a way to make this piece fit the title.

The Hateful Eight says it all.

You know the story line: eight travellers caught in a storm on their way to Red Rock. You could replace "eight" with "twenty thousand", "storm" with "ultra road race" and "Red Rock" with "from Pietermaritzburg to Durban" and the movie title would be a perfect fit. Uncanny. Remarkably uncanny. 

The writer,
Caroline Wöstmann  (last year's winner;
this year's incredible runner up),
and Alberto

Alberto and I arrived at the start at 3.59am. We spent the night before Comrades, as we always do at the home of our Pietermaritzburg friends-who-are-like-family, Nick and Nicky. Trevor Hoskins, our running mate who was out for 2016 having exchanged his 24th Comrades with a knee op, had made the introduction. To date, Nick and Nicky have hosted us for every Down Run. Nicky, a self proclaimed farm girl, gave up her bed for our first Comrades when she was eight months pregnant. They don't make many in her mould anymore.

Nick, well aware of the intricacies of race morning traffic, was primed in his car at 3.45am to drop us off at the start. We arrived before the 4am opening of the race paddocks. Alb and I found ourselves as the first two runners in the pen. The road was resplendent in silence and a pink light reflected off the 100 year old city hall. We noted the town hall's clock was running 20 minutes late. Of all the days that time meant anything and everything to the town's citizens. And it was twenty minutes late. A somewhat sinister omen before the downward spiral towards the sea.
The Team Riccardi strategy for this year's race was simple: I would drive the Riccardi Bus to the 60k mark at sub-8h30 pace, and then hand over the keys to Alby who would deliver us to the green of Kingsmead stadium to collect our Bill Rowan medals.  The beauty of the plan was its simplicity.

A few things to note: my fastest down run was a 9h23 from Comrades 2012; my fastest Comrades was 2015's up run with 9h11. Sub-9 is a Bill Rowan and I hadn't really been close. Alby on the other hand had been resting on the laurels of a few Bill Rowans clutched tightly between his knuckles with a PB of 8h35m46s. Give or take a few milliseconds.

So our proposed 8h30 target was not without its challenges.

The Brothers Not So Grim
(photograph taken at Bedfordview Athletic's
1st helpers table at the 21k mark)
The mighty Kevin Boake was there too. Head and shoulders above the diminutive crowd of runners. 2,000 kilometres of training in his shoes. All done on the roads and trails of the UK's Birmingham.

"The first time I ran in sunshine was on the 18th May", Kevin stated matter of factly. He trained hard yards in hard Brummie conditions.

The strains of the National Anthem, Shosholoza, Vangelis's Chariots of Fire and Max Trimborn's cockcrow reverberated in our ears as the exodus filtered its way to Durban.

Comrades counts down its mileage (kilometerage?) instead of the other way around. At the 80k's to go sign, we were over 2 minutes ahead of schedule. 6 minutes ahead at 70k's to go. 13 minutes at 60k's to go. I had never been so far ahead of pace and up the field before. Several silver contenders mingled about. It was disconcerting. Did we have any business being here? The inevitable question was posed:

Rob:- Seems like you're setting the pace?
Alb:- No. This is fine. Check there's Kevin.
Rob:- We have no business being near Kevin. Feels too fast.
Alb:- It's all time in the bag. This is fine. Don't worry. Do you think Kevin is putting in a surge?

My heart rate vascillated at 140 to 150 heart beats in sync with the troughs and peaks of Polly Shortts. In my mind I knew the pacing was all Alby's. A few nudges beyond the range of my audacity.
Once past Cato Ridge, with the burning embers from the preceding hills in slow fade, our spirits perked up at the easy meandering of the road to the foothills of the monster that is Inchanga. Alb suddenly exhaled an expletive. Out of nowhere. He clutched his calf with both hands. We stopped by the roadside. No plans had been implemented for anything so dramatic. We tried a little walking. And then a bit of running. Alb hobbled as though a rabid dog had clamped itself to his lower calf.

"It pulled a few days ago while stretching. I thought the niggle would work its way out." We walked a few metres more and then started a slow jog. The limping was pronounced. "You go. I'll be fine."

I was ready for Alb to try take one for the team and immediately responded, "F$*% you Keeto. We'll walk it in."

In the 2011 Comrades, my mate Keeto (he has his own label on this blog) tried taking himself out of running together with Alb and I by calling out his injury midway in the race. A cowardly tactic. That didn't work then and, I was confident, wouldn't work now. Not with the Riccardi Wolf Pack fully aligned as it was.  

Alb was having none of it. We argued a bit about the pros and cons. His eyes squinting all the while.

"Go get Kevin", he smiled. Insisting he gave me a shove shouting after me, "Go catch him".

It broke my heart. Last year I remembered running solo which, for that long, isn't that much fun. My mom's words from earlier in the week popped into my head.

"Make sure you look after your brother. And his heart."

It occurred to me - polishing the edge of my halo - that if I stayed back, it would only make Alb feel bad and force him to run through the pain. Alb never mentions the pain or even the concept thereof except when debilitated by it. So I knew that this flaw, one of many, in his character would come back to bite him. And it'd aggravate the damage.

We said our goodbyes and, moving away from my ambling brother, I recalled how I once played the man servant, Lucius, to Alb's Brutus in a school play of Julius Caesar. And how the roles altered so that I was now the Brutus to his Caesar.
I would run the next 30 kilometres in solitude.

Team Manager, Stef, admonishing
older brother for his injury
Alb walked the next 5k's until the half way mark whereafter he stopped at every physio table to receive attention to his soleus and Achilles. He eventually composed himself to finish in 9h26m. This was quite astonishing really. Only 3 minutes shy of our 2012 PB down run of 9h23.

The solo portion of the run was a kaleidoscope of images: a quick high five with Ironman legend Kris Fessel, some mojo replenishment from the Angry Kenyan, a high five from my London days' mate Jamie Wardell, a quick kiss from the wife, some words from the Manager of Team Riccardi, and some killer salty crisps from Grees whose wife, Kate, was in the race and bearing down on me.

At 30k's from the end (maybe between Hillcrest and Kloof) Kevin's dad, Doug, told me Kevin was a minute up the road.

"Go work together" he shouted after me. It was the nitrous I required. Leaning forward, I switched off the mind. Eventually, fifteen minutes or so later, I saw the tall figure that could only be Kevin looming ahead. He looked worse than I felt which was a ridiculously comforting thing.

Kevin was broken.

Rob:- "Come on Kev. Easy does it my boy. Let's get it going."
Kevin:- "Rob, you go. I can't go any faster."

Another martyr just like Alby.
Rob:- "Short easy steps. Let's go."

Kev soon woke from his slumber and started moving again. Fields Hill chasm'd before us. My quads couldn't bear the pain and reduced me to a walk. Kev cruised down its twisting turns and disappeared down the road. Soon we was out of sight. Thank goodness he is broken I thought. The state of play caused me to laugh out loud like someone from an asylum.

As the road levelled, I bridged my way back to him. "Where did you go?" he asked.
After that Kev and I hung tough. We ran what we could, walked everything else. I'm quite tall for a short guy, 5 foot 7. It's a smidgen under 6 foot my parents tells me. Kevin is 6 foot 4. He has to lug his unit of a body, mainly muscle and sinew, up and down the hill with a thousand valleys under a hot African sun. Brummie conditions are gnarly in comparison. The two of us alongside each other in Bedfordview club colours must've made an interesting juxtaposition. 

13k's to go.
Rob and Kev chasing PBs
The mind wanders during the hard times. Stef asked afterwards what it was like. I thought for a bit and without hesitation told him something along these lines:
"You know Game of Thrones when they torture the guys in the holding pen by tying a bucket around their waist, inserting a rat into the bucket and heating the bucket with a flaming torch causing the rat to scrape its way through the victim's stomach? Well, as I was running with Kev, I thought to myself what would I rather have: my current predicament or the rat and the bucket? And I thought about that rat...... and the bucket......and the clawing to death....and in that moment with what I was feeling - to be brutally honest - I couldn't tell or comprehend which would be worse." 
Kevin and I had spoken before the race. A Bill Rowan was never the primary goal. Breaking Alby's 8h34 most certainly was. It had to be. It'd invite bragging rights for a whole year. It'd leap you up the pecking order of bravado and with it the sense of well being that comes from being with your friends and knowing that every race thereafter, they'll be gunning for your record. It's runners' street cred.
With ten kilometres to go, the distance yawned across the expanse to the Kingsmead Stadium. The last ten stretch much further than the morning's first ten. Almost too impossible to fathom. The last ten are the Mariana Trench.
6 minutes per k is all we need for 8.30. Just focus on one kilometre at a time.
I leaned forward and thought about Game of Thrones.
A few seconds later, I sensed Kevin's presence dwindling. I turned and saw him eyes closed, looking downwards, legs grinding the tar for any inches that it would permit. He looked at me. I understood.
It was our Wild Geese moment.
You know Wilde Geese? The movie where the mercenaries escape the heavily stereotyped African country and chase a plane down the runway to escape a chasing horde of enraged presidential storm troopers and their machine guns.   
Allow me to set the scene.

Faulkner (mercenary commander) is on the plane imploring his injured friend Janders (former military tactician) to board the plane. Faulkner promised to look after Janders's son, Emile, if the operation ever went wrong. A highly crucial nugget if you're ever going to understand the scene which played out on or near the 45th Cutting and mostly in my head: 
Rob (on the plane):- Kevin! Come on! Come on! Come on, Kevin! Shawn, stop the plane!
Shawn (imaginary pilot):- I can't. If we don't get off on the first run, we've had it!
Kevin (stumbling towards the plane):- Go! Go!
Rob:- Kevin, come on! Hang on Kevin!
Kevin:- Rob! Rob, shoot me! For God's sakes, shoot me!
Rob:- No I can't! No stop the plane!
Kevin:- Emile!! 

[Gunshot echoes]

[fade to black]

Kevin clawed his way to the finish in an impressive 8h34m14s. His second Bill Rowan. 32 seconds faster than Alb's PB.  
It is always a challenge to describe the last ten k's of the Comrades.

The engines are over-revved and whining, the chassis is rattling, fuel gauges are flashing empty. The mind's wiring is tangled and smells of burnt iron filings. Thoughts misfire in rapid succession until the wandering mind narrows into a single thought: get to the finish. At all costs get to the finish.
The cramps work their way through my arms, hips and into my groin like lightening across a hurricane. A fishing vessel against a storm fighting grey steel waves which pull from all sides. It feels as though my body has been hanged, drawn and quartered and reattached by a demon seamstress using twine from a fisherman's net. Eyes become slits. Breathing becomes ragged, grinding and gnawing at the insides. The crowd's drowning squalls smother the runners. Like salted blankets.
The stadium grows from the ground like a harbour emerging from the rocky shoreline. Lines of people beckon you closer. The green of the grass is morphine to the legs. Almost too soft.  
The green grass awaits

The lactic acid weaves its way to the tear ducts and - as you cross the line and lean towards your Hateful Eighth - you smile so broadly your cheeks hurt. 
My watch displayed 8h27m and with it the knowledge that I was now the family record holder and that people (probably just Kevin and Alby) would be gunning for me.

I wouldn't want it any other way.

Storing nuts for the winter hibernation,

  • First ten k's: 47m35s
  • Last ten k's: 59m24s
  • 1st half of the race: Time 4h03m 5m24s pace (147 HR ave)
  • 2nd half: Time 4h24m 6m03s pace (147 HR ave)
  • Average running pace: 5m42s

The 12 hour aftermath

The only pacing chart that has ever worked

Rob, Shpic (9h47m PB) and Alb

First Bill Rowan

Comrades Pacing Graph for Kev, Alb & Rob

Ironman South Africa 2016 - The Big Nut

I asked my wife “Do you think people look at all these Ironman athletes and feel inspired? Or inadequate?”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Inadequate mostly.”
That was interesting. Too many trees for me to see the forest.
After mulling it over for a bit I responded. “You’d be amazed,” I said, “how inadequate most of them, especially the faster ones, feel.”
Hoc est bellum - this is war
A year ago, I decided to retire from Ironman racing. Ironman South Africa 2015 would be my tenth and final Ironman. I’d quit while I was ahead. The IM notches on my race belt read: Lanzarote 2004, South Africa 2005/2009/2010/2012/2013, Switzerland 2005, United Kingdom 2007 and Western Australia 2007 which guarded my best time of 10.28.
The 2015 season was replete with the bounty of solid racing and a few propitious top tens in the shorter races. There was a hiccup. The kids’ lurgy had found its way to my head and chest. Instead of antibiotics, I availed myself of my tenuous medical skills and opted to heal myself through rest and excellent nutrition. An inexorably lousy decision. The IMSA 2015 finish line accepted me with blocked bronchials, a sore chest and a broken heart in just over 11 hours.
It was my intention to leave it all out there. No regrets. But there was a nagging feeling inside which wouldn’t leave me. One does not always have to leave at the top, but to leave without so much as a whimper was regretful.
And then Port Elizabeth said it’d change the Ironman course and iron out the hills. My dream of a sub-10 attempt had died years back when they fortified the course with a series of diabolical quad busters: hills designed to reduce grown men to weeping invertebrates. But with the new course, there might be a chance of a sub-10. Just maybe.
I entered Ironman South Africa 2016.
Onesie - never leave home without it
I love Ironman racing. The race exposes nerves. A quilt of a day comprised of patches: training rides with friends; Natalie's post-ride chocolate muffins; talks with my dad over world domination; and early morning sacrifices all stitched together with the threads of tenacity, dedication and a bit of caffeine. For one day only. So planning for the day, which is kind of like a warm Ironman security blanket, is appealing.
To go sub-10, I'd need to assess weaknesses. Become indestructible.
I’m not a naturally pedigreed athlete. More of a never-say-die, tenacious, get-knocked-down-8-times-get-up-9-times kind of guy. If you cut me, do I not bleed grit? I’d rather lean on my ability to suffer and not surrender instead of work hard. It’s the threadbare belief of dreamers and in a long day of racing, tenacity can only take you so far. Preparation, training and a willingness to commit – some might call it hard work - should always take priority.
A few changes come to mind:
1. No races whatsoever other than Ironman. Sub-10 or bust.
2. No racing the Ironman swim.
3. Tweak the bike position. Drop the handle bar height. Narrow the aero bars.
4. Do yoga to prevent injury and keep the hips and lower back in check.
5. Learn to ride in the biggest gear on the bike. And hold it. No matter how bad things get.
6. Double the training. Why average 12 hours a week, when you can do 24? Nothing succeeds like excess. 
Picture sent to my Ironman newbie friend, The Angry Kenyan, 
to help him not overthink things
They replaced the mass start swim with a rolling start. And with it went the adrenaline, punching, wandering elbows and fear of death. It’s probably for the best, but with it goes the D-Day imagery of soldiers driving forward in throngs into the surf, like battalions off to the slaughter. That’s one of the images that first sold me into this sport. Sure, it’s not for everyone. And some people shouldn’t do this. But doesn’t that add to the allure? Safety is important and no-one wants to see anyone get hurt, but are we not pandering to the Health and Safety officers of this world that are cotton-wooling anything that is a bit hard? Nuff said.
I found myself with three friends: Kelly, Roxy and Gareth. We agreed to join forces and head out together. After the pro’s cannon scared the bejesus out of me, the age groupers sardined towards the start line for their ten second send off. The four of us headed off a minute or so after the first few batches. I went out easy watching the orange sun fish-scaling off the large big breasted waves lolling their way to shore. That was the last I saw of Kelly and Gareth in the swim. The next time I saw Kelly she was hunting me down on the bike with her Star Wars helmet. The next time I would see Gareth was at about 10pm that evening when he was pail, clammy and vomiting orange naartjies outside the green grass of the finishers’ tent.
Roxy was on fire. She came past me rotating her shoulders like a combine harvester chasing a deadline. I knew she was good for a 60 minute swim, and let her come by me. I sat on her feet for the rest of the swim.
At one of the large buoys, there was a bit of congestion resulting in spontaneous breast stroking and rubbernecking to see what’s going on. Roxy unleashed a kick to my hand with the force of a small rubber mallet. She turned to me with wide eyes and implored “Sorry. I’m so sorry.” I smiled. Even in the heat of battle, she is the epitome of what a good sportsman (sportsperson?) should be.
We would turn the last buoy still together. I caught a small wave to shore and gently eased my way to the bike.
Swim Time: 1.01
Heart Rate Average: 123
The only wetsuit I have ever owned
Heading out, my heart rate was low. Really low. The speed was good and my effort level relaxed. Riders smoked by me and I thought of two things: (i) these European guys will not be able to hold a flat time trial without the respite of a few hills (ii) all us Joburgers, especially the East Rand racers, love our flat courses because that’s all we have back home.
Everyone was riding as honestly as possible. The pace was brisk and insistent. There was very little wind in either direction and it seemed that a sub-10 was on, if the weather held. My speed maintained itself at 33-34kph, which is exactly as I had planned.
“Don’t get greedy”, I said, copying Paula Newby Fraser* who had spoken the day before at an athletes’ breakfast. “Greed”, Paula had said, “is the biggest contributor to people having bad races.”  
[*Paula as you all know is the Queen of Kona, 8 time Hawaii Ironman winner. She grew up in Durban and told us of how she qualified at the Carling Black Label triathlon in order to qualify for her first Kona].
The first loop was done in 2h35 - a smoking 35kph. I picked up two fresh bottles of SIS (one Blueberry carb, one Strawberry protein), wine gums and a droëwors pack at special needs and implored the wind gods to remain at sea.
Heart rates are interesting things. Less like targets, and more like rev counters. You over-rev, you burn out the engine. Simple. My heart rate cap for the bike is about 152. That is *The Edge*. You may go near The Edge, but you don’t go over it. If you do, before you know it you’ve gone over The Edge and you’ll crack. No-one comes back from that.
The second loop saw my heart rate begin its steady rise.
The hill at Schoenies managed to ratchet up the beats to 160. I backed off. As far as I could. “Go easy. Don’t be a chop.” The heat was building and the legs struggled to keep the pace. I sipped on my water bottle, popped a salt tab and doused my helmet and the arms of my skin top with the rest.
In addition to training my heat acclimation in the sauna, I had opted for a road instead of a Time Trial helmet. I’d happily donate a few minutes to keeping the core cool for the run. And although I enjoy racing just with a trisuit (dehydrated bronzed arms are good for the ego and the race pictures above the bar), I had gone the Nick Stephenson route. Nick, my good mate, is adamant that a skinsuit top is cooler than skin. I agree.
This helped quite a bit and my heart rate levelled out at 158. Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, this is the equivalent of leaning way over The Edge and looking into the abyss. The last 40k’s or so of the bike ride are crucial. So many times I have blown up in these parts, unable to hold anything resembling pace, because I was too smoked. This time, the build-up in the quads and lower back was manageable. I was comfortable holding 32k’s to the finish. Doubling the bike volume has its benefits. “Don’t be greedy” I incanted to the finish.
I moved into transition and rubbed my feet and toes with Vaseline. My sub-10 plan was intact. All I needed now was to shrug off the 180k’s from my loaded quads, knock 10 minutes off my marathon PB and run a 3.30-ish marathon to secure the sub-10. Almost too easy.
Bike Time: 5.18
Heart Rate Average: 145
A windless day
The Emi Loop
The run course was changed from 3 to 4 loops with the dark side loop of the university eviscerated from the map. Without any opportunity to escape the gaze of spectators, there’s a good chance you’ll run too fast and blow yourself to smithereens, I pondered.
4 loops of 10.55k’s. 52m30s per loop would be 5mins per k and bring me in on a 3h30.
All of these numbers are very easy when I look at them on my spreadsheet. Not so much when the brain fuzz has set in and you don’t know your star sign let alone be able to read numbers.
As the legs struggled to get into rhythm, I decided to think about one person for each loop. Emilia, my 5 year old daughter, would be loop 1. My boys, Ben (age 7) loop 2 and Jake (age 10) loop 3. Thoughts of my long standing wife (age undisclosed) would fill my mind for the final loop.
I cracked the first loop in 50minutes. 4m45s per k. Maybe too fast with the heart rate hovering in the low 160’s but I felt good. And was definitely holding back. Within reason.
The Glide
The Ben Loop
And then as I started loop 2, I saw Roxy. She had found her way onto the run and was tearing up tarmac. Other than a few pros, no-one else was running that fast. She dropped me like a bad habit and headed up the road.
As part of the new run course, there is a section - near the first turnaround underneath a highway bridge and bordered by concrete barriers - where the heat seethes and froths. The area is silent and accentuated by explosions of heaving air from broken lungs. Little Nagasaki bombs imploding under a cauldron highway. Time slowed as I made my way up the gradual climb. The numbers on my watch morphed into skinny elephants as my vision blurred into a Daliesque hue of orange and grey.

For the first time, I began to wilt and crumble. The ground beneath me turned to apple pie. A heart beat germinated from the centre of my cortex. Someone had cranked up the temperature. Bastards all around me, I bleated. Bastards trying to grind us down. 
My legs bubbled and I tried to stay in the present. Jaw, shoulders, elbows, fingers. “Soften”, I chanted mimicking my French yogi, Carine. My Ben loop was tightening its vice around my neck. I still had 30k’s to go and I was unravelling. My Coke-only-at-half-way-plan was binned immediately and I smashed four Cokes at the next feed station. I’m not going without a fight, I said to no-one in particular.
At 25k’s to go, my bladder declared mutiny and I pulled into a portaloo. Sweat and sunscreen trickled from my eyebrows into the loo as I emptied my bladder’s contents. I could taste the sunscreen and sweat trickling over my lips.
Every central character has a moment when it needs to get up off the canvas and back into the ring. Chumbawamba said it best “I get knocked down, but I get up again”. Although it would be idealistic and a touch romantic to think that my epiphany fully formed itself in the lavatory, it did not. However, it was the start of one.
As I exited, I noticed that my friend and team mate, Craig West, had run by and was 50 metres up the road. Westie is a legend at our club and I know that if anyone can run 5 mins per k, it’ll be Westie. I threw out my elasticated tentacles and embedded them into Westie’s back. If I’m ever going to come close, he’s my lifeline. It’s the only way.
I clawed and scraped my way to him. After a few k’s I was on his hip. He took me to the half way mark in 1h45m.
55m08s (5m14s)
Cows rule.
The Jake Loop
My 3rd Jake loop started to come together as I managed to bridge by Westie and eventually move by Roxy. The heat and distance was getting to everyone. Feet and hearts were beginning to warp and disintegrate around me.
At the 15k mark, I started cranking. First the arms and then the knees. Arms. Then knees. Run hard. Walk a bit. Run hard. Coke. Lots of Coke. And water over the head. Staying in the moment.
55m26s (5m15s)
The Natalie Loop
At the start of my 4th Natalie-loop, I wasn’t sure of a couple of things.
First, if I finished the loop at 5mins per k, I would miss the sub-10 by a minute. Second, my last loop pace was 5m12s per k and if I continued at that pace I’d miss the sub-10 by 3 minutes. Third, I could barely remember who Natalie was.
This is my last race ever. The last time I will ever be this strong. Ever have this privilege. Ever have my friends all here shouting for their friend. I will not come this way again.
I made a call. All else had failed. All I had left was tenacity and the will to fight. I was committed. All chips were on the table and I was throwing for double sixes. Double sixes or death.
My brain was in sensory overload. Sounds, complex thought, peripheral vision, the feeling of pain began to dissipate. All that made sense was forward movement. Pushing the pace as far as it would allow.
Keeto was shouting at me from the course. "Go RobbyRicc. Now is the time. Now. Go! Go!" Goosies brimmed.
I could see the yellow from the Richard Laskey’s T-shirt, the outstretched arms of JP, the clapping of Paula and the fist pumps from Richard’s dad, Keith. Heroin to my addiction.
And then Natalie. Her mouth moving. Her hands clapping. Her heart pumping. I pushed some more.
And then Keith was sprinting alongside me. The lights were fading. The feet still turning.
"RobbyRicc!! You've got to run as fast as you can. From here. You’ve got less than 20 minutes to make 4k’s. You might make it. You might not. Either way it’s a PB. Better to die trying. Now run!!"
Everyone in that last ten k’s was complicit in the coup of our own creation. The road was beginning to come to me. I could feel the carpet calling.
Do not stop for one second. This race is not over. This race will not be won out here. It will be won on the blood red carpet. Not in time. But in inches. Go faster. Go faster.
They tell me later that I ran a few of those last kilometres at 4 mins per k.

The red of the carpet
As I tilted around the corner, my mouth was open, my teeth bared as I sucked in every bit of oxygen I could take in.
And there at the end of the carpet, I could see the digital clock ticking. As it came closer, I noticed the first digit on the left. Be a 9-anything. 9-anything. The digit began to take shape and as my vision focused I saw that it read “10:00:50”.  Dagnabbit I heaved and pushed to try get the 10-hour on the nose time. Even that disappeared as I saw the clock tick over to 10:01 and a fistful of seconds.
Still, so very near. I was out of oxygen but smiling with the effort as the attendant grabbed me and held me from falling over. Nats and Keith were running from behind the perimeter fence jumping up and down shouting “You did it! You did it!”

“Nope”, I spluttered, “10.01. 10.01. So close.”
“No. I promise you. You did it! I saw 9.59 as you crossed and your name flashed!”
I double checked my watch which I had clicked on the start line a few seconds before my wave left. It read “9h59m40s”. I had forgotten that the digital clock which read “10:00:00” was the time for the first group. Because I had started 90 seconds back, 90 seconds was deducted from my final finish line time.
“You’ve got to be kidding. That is incredible!”
We had just pulled off the biggest coup of my racing lifetime.
Run Time: 3.32
Heart Rate Average: 158
Total Time 9h59m26s 

Keith and Nats sharing the Love

The Kona slot would have always been a cherry on the top. Sunday had been a fast day. 20 guys in my age group (40-44) went sub-10. There were 14 sub-tenners in the 35-39's, 4 in the 45-49's. The last slot in my age group went to 13th place which meant I missed Kona by 4 minutes and 34 seconds.
As the last slot disappeared into the ether, Natalie leaned over to me.
Natalie:  Is that it? No more slots?
Rob:      No more slots. That's it.
Natalie: Thank goodness. We could never have afforded it.
Rob:       Don't worry. I was braking on the bike to make sure we didn't have to.
Sub10. Not bust. Over and out.