Ironman South Africa 2014 - chased by demons

I’m heading north, as I write this piece, doing 150ks per hour underneath the English shipping channel on top of which is perched a blue sunny sky. Paris in its resplendent glory is behind me and an April London awaits at the end of the line. My left foot is still swollen and seeping. A make shift bandage wrapped, around two cotton wool pads, procured from the Hotel Du Bois off L’Arc de Triomphe, hides a blister which looks like the V-shape of a dam from an overhead satellite, and is the size of large pirate’s eye patch. The stripped raw burning sensation in the quads settles when I sit, but my shoulders ache as I recall the violence of the swim start with the tormented thrust and pull of the first swim pack. My lower back and spine are caramelised gelatine fricasseed by the angled power-drive off the bike. It was only a few days ago that we fought out beyond Hobie Beach, but yet when I close my eyes, it feels like it was a different generation. Years ago when I was a different person and when anything seemed possible.


My friend and coach, Keeto, had put together a plan. It was a tweaked plan from the past few years. But it was the first time he had mentioned a Kona slot. To do that I would have to raise my game considerably. Consent was required from my wife, of course, to ensure she was on board. And from my training partner, Alb, who would need to raise his game too. Both agreed verbally and supported me 100%, and then, without missing a beat, Alberto changed jobs and Natalie took 3 of my key training mornings in the week.

This challenge was not going to be easy.

With the normal training hours availed to me, I tweaked other things in my control:
  • Going Vegan. Vegan-ish would be the better definition. But I moved to plants as my primary dietary source. This was compromised when I went for dinner to people’s houses as I don’t like to make a fuss. Sticking to plants ensures you eliminate most of the processed rubbish to which most of us are addicted.
  • Core Work. Having a tough stomach is incredibly helpful when you need to work hard on the bike and run.
  • Eliminating all fast races. I tend to get injured if I race too fast and didn't enter all the usual Olympic Distance races. This ensured my body wasn’t broken come race day.
  • Rest. I made sure I went to sleep as early as possible.
Swim – 00:55:57

Keeto texted me the night before “You have 6 matches. Use them carefully throughout the day.”

As I crinkled my toes into the sand for traction, I decided I would burn a match at the start. This proved to be my best investment of energy for the day. Being a little guy, I had to man up and take a few heads shots but was able to get behind all the Chads and Camerons of the swimming world and pilot fish my way to a new PB. Sighting and pace and all that went out the window, as I focused all my energies onto the kick bubbles of the guy in front of me. It was an interesting experiment.

My lactic-acid-filled lungs and arms trembled as though about to implode and I reminded myself, no-one can go this hard the whole way. Have faith, they will settle. And just when I thought I had had enough, at about 600 metres, they settled like birds locking themselves into the security of the southern flying flock and, despite the odd surge here and there, held a DEFCON 2 pace until the last buoy.
T1 – 3m20s

Bike– 06:06:55

The new bike course was pretty spectacular. Big breasted climbs surrounded by wooded areas, lakes, sand dunes and ocean. A few rollercoaster descents made your teeth and bike chatter. And a headwind swirled about you and squeezed the will to live from your legs like a frog in a vice.

The hardest thing about the bike ride was the feeling of inadequacy that overwhelms you as cyclists tear up the tar as they go by you. It was as though they were riding on the travelator section of the road. Keeto reckoned I should cycle on amber. It felt as though I was on top of amber and nudging red. And as the engine over-revved, I dealt with my inner demons. My inner demons are a sprightly bunch and over time I have gotten to know them and their wily ways. They’re like old English relatives coming to tea and repeating the obvious.

Demon 1:      “Those bikes that just went by look like they are much lighter than yours. Have you ever double checked that your frame is actually carbon fibre and not some heavy alloy composite?”

Demon 2:       “What’s the sound coming from your chain? Sounds like it’s sticking and you’re going so slow because something is wrong with your bike. Or maybe your legs? Maybe stop and check.”

Demon 3:        “You went way too hard in that swim. That’ll come back and bite you later. Why did you do that? It made no sense whatsoever. Look, another one of those guys has gone past you.”

Demon 4:      “You have no business being here. Those boys are clearly semi-pros. Semi-pros or drugged to the hilt. Either way nobody can go that hard. You’re just going to hurt yourself. Best you slow down.”

Demons of inadequacy work constantly all day to break you down and get you to stop, like little worker-bees assigned to stop you from killing yourself by any means necessary. Over time they become your friends. Constant reminders of one's weakness can prove quite helpful.

It was at the top of one of the last monster hills, that even the demons were taken by surprise. My left adductor muscle on the inside of my quad, slowly slithered up from my knee to my groin and suddenly seemed to rip into life resulting in a garbled banshee yelp which forced me to stop my bike.

Demon 1:       “What the hell was that?! If you didn’t see that one coming, you’re more stuffed than we thought. This doesn’t bode well at all.”

Demon 2:         If he didn’t see that one coming, it means he is very weak in the quads, which means he has overcooked it. The run is going to be an abomination. We should try to convince him to stop once he finishes the bike. If he finishes the bike.”

Demon 3:        “The adductor is probably damaged. It may have a catalytic effect on the body. This is a sure sign that this is the beginning of the end.”

Demon 4:        “Why is he getting back on the bike? He’s just going to damage it further. Oh look, there’s even a girl overtaking him on the bike.”

There was a tail wind for the last handful of k’s and I put my head down and worked the cranks. My vision blurred for the last handful of minutes as I wobbled and frothed into transition. We’ll be ok, I told my demons. We’ll get changed and start off slowly. We’ll be fine. My demons shook their heads as if to say “Not this time my friend. This time, ol' matey, you have gone too far.”

T1 – 4m05s

Run– 03:44:48

I put Vaseline all over my feet. Globules of the stuff in between my toes and around the side of my feet. But, and I don’t know quite why, I didn’t put enough under the sole of my left foot. This would come back to bite me.

“Get your frequency together. Nice and easy. Do not force it. Stay in the moment,” I thought.

After the first few k’s of settling the vision and the muscles, the feet began to turnover nicely. And then the burning under the left foot began. I could feel the skin starting to fill up with fluid and separate from the raw flesh underneath. I was pretty ready to go Full Metal Jacket but knew that I was barely 10k’s into the race and should tend to any hot spots. I stopped quickly and removed my wet socks. The blister was squishy and wrinkled as I pressed its sides. I reached into the crevasses of my toes with my fingers, cleaned out the remnants of Vaseline between them and smeared what I could on the underside of my foot. I put my socks back on, cursed myself for wasting time, and got back to running.

At the start of the second loop, I turned the corner to get my second elastic around my wrist and I could feel the twisting skin starting to rip off the foot. I winced, began on the Coke and spoke to my demons:

RR:               “So aside from the blister, you have to admit, everything else is going really well. The Achilles is holding nicely, the quads burn like hell but have stabilised and my stomach hasn’t complained all day.”

Demons:        “The only reason you are feeling so good is because you are going too slow. If you really start pushing now, the wheels will come off straight away. So, in a nutshell, we have done our job of self preservation. Oh look another runner has gone by you.”

I knew they were right. Things had been too easy. It was time to ignore the foot and focus on the pace. I lifted my fists and started gently swinging a rhythm, building momentum until I was able to catch the feet that had just overtaken me. This pace was way too fast. “Let’s see if I can hold onto it for just one kilometre and then we’ll reassess”, I said to myself. The marker came by me and I checked my watch. “4m58 seconds. That’s not that quick. Sure it’s tough now, but all I have to do is go Zen. Full Zen.”

Pain is just living in the past. Pain that hasn’t yet happened should be ignored. Now is the only time you can do anything about your predicament.

And with that in mind I held on. For the next k, and the one after that, and the one after that. And the one after that. And for each one, my mind drifted as though wanting to go to the recess of my mind, strip away all clothing, get into the bath and turn on the warm water and soothe itself from the throbbing and the tearing of muscles off limbs before bringing warm cocoa to chapped lips and a moist cloth to gently dab at the corners of my temples. My mind was thrust back to the present. The feet had moved away from me further up the road. “Come back to me,” I willed and leaned forward until my feet were running in unison with those ahead of me.

And then I saw the 24 kilometre mark. And I did a calculation and realised that I still had 18 kilometres to run, and it occurred to me that I’d never be able to hold this pace for that distance. My voice had begun to merge with that of my demons. It was slipping from my grasp and the demons were now part of me. We were all in this together. “Happy Purpose”, I began to whisper, “Happy Purpose. Just do 1 kilometre. And then repeat that. Finish what you started.”

And as all men and women have done through the ages in times of suffering, I thought of my children and my wife and my friends and my parents and my fellow athletes with whom I was suffering and who still had more to endure. My forearms had begun to cramp now forcing me to run with a straight left arm, but I didn’t mind. It’s just the demons being shed from body. The body and mind are in good frequency. The purging of weakness, doubt and inadequacy had begun and my legs turned and turned and turned.

The red carpet has no real floor. The feet hover a few centimetres as you glide down the chute to the finish line. The demons, eviscerated from the body, fall to one side. The mind and body become one as pure joy overwhelms the senses as you lean forward to glory. And beyond.

Total – 10:55:06

Of the 470 men in the 40-44 year age group, I was 3rd out the water, finished 23rd on the bike and ran my way into 11th position.

8 slots to the World Championships in Kona Hawaii were allocated to my age group. These roll down if one of the top 8 decides not to choose their slot. All 8 slots were taken. I was 15 minutes and 2 seconds away from the eight place. That’s the closest by far that I have ever been to getting a slot.

This is the End

The massage tent was filled with sweat and Ironmen, like prize fighters in a triage tent. I lay with my face in the soft sponge of the table. My body pulsed and ached as though acid was seeping into every fibre. My medal rested underneath the heaving air which clawed its way out my mouth.

Natalie bent over me and whispered some words. I smiled a grimace not understanding anything that came from her sweet mouth.  

“Sweets, what happens now? Did I win?” I gurgled, sweat and grit streaking down the corner of my mouth, yellow liquid dripping from the gash in my foot.

I imagined her response as she cleaned the tears from the corner of my eyes. “It’s not whether you win or lose here”, she whispered as her eyes scoured the room, “it’s whether you accepted the challenge.”

Ground control to Major Tom,