Suffering is one of the options

There are a number of race pictures which lurk in the recess of my computer files. Just sitting there. Alone. Brooding. Narcissistic. With no-one to look at them, to ponder, "I wonder what he was thinking when they took that picture?"

Most of the race photos are my Facebook-happy-pictures which reflect some sort of emotion which can be slotted into a holding pen along the spectrum of my contentment. The pre-race excitement shared with friends; crossing the finish line in a state of euphoric delirium; the smile elicited from a kneeling photographer; or simply a photo reflecting the state of graceful racing. These are the sort of pictures I'd share with my Facebook friends or (both) my Twitter followers, so they could see that life was good for me, for a moment, and that it might transfer some of that happiness into their world. Endorphins trickling down through the cyber network of our social cosmos.

But then there are the real life pictures.

A bit like the reality war photographs from Life Magazine or the leech-infested swamp photographs out of National Geographic. They reveal something deeper. Because I am the person in these pictures, they trigger an emotional response within me which differ greatly to what would be seen through the goggles of an impartial bystander. These are my photographs of quiet and silent suffering. My monk-covered-in-flames moment. Not as dramatic or fiery, but at the moment when each of those were taken I was at my limit. Right on the edge. Nudging at the sinewy fabric of possibility and teetering on the brink of my own destruction.

They are not necessarily my best moment ever pictures. But because of that they are interesting. They reveal more about the moment and the athlete within them, than all the other happy snaps combined.

The picture above was taken at about the 13k mark of the Ironman South Africa Run.

The wheels had come off. My heart rate monitor was showing me that I was on a road to nowhere. My lungs were still filled with lurgy-fluid preventing me from breathing easy. And in a race with the magnitude of an Ironman, you need to breathe easy. Real easy. I was not yet spluttering. That would come later. I was sucking in oxygen though. And it was not getting to my legs. I knew it was game over. However I had chosen to ignore all the obvious signals of my defeat. I was pushing way beyond what my body, and its waterlogged lungs, would permit. "The feedback from the body is white noise" I affirmed. "Bring me my sweet glory. Or my sweet death."

As it was, my bleeding gasket blew about 90 minutes after that picture. I had started thinking about my kids and their idiot dad who was hurting himself for a race. Thoughts like that slow the body right down. They remind you that you've lost this chess game. Tilt your king to its right side. Take stock. Reload the chess pieces. Get in line. Plan for another year. Try again.

A friend of mine took the set of pictures (look left) of me at the ITU World Triathlon Championships in 2012. I was on the start of my 10k run around London's Hyde Park.

I was mad.

My tri suit was too small and my quads bubbled on the bike with way too much lactic acid in the muscles, not from lack of training, but from tight untested fabric.

I had a pack of four or five athletes on my heels. They would stay with me for about 2 more minutes and then I'd find another gear.

We were going at about 3 and a half minutes per kilometre. Which was about as fast as I could go at the time.

At about this frame on the left, a shiver of a cramp burst through my quad.

You can see the grimace appear. The body is fighting back. But the mind wants none of it.

Someone whispered "It's all in the head". And I listened.

The body would come back though. It'd be 38 mins for the 10k run. Which was about as fast as I could go at the time.

These were the bad moments in an otherwise good day.

Which brings me to the Sun City Swim pictures below. The picture on the left is the first confirmed sighting of the Cow speedo in action. The one on the right is the second confirmed sighting of the Cow speedo in action, with a passenger.

In the solo shot, my shoulders were fully loaded with what can only be explained as the same burn felt by Olympic rowers. The little guy with the green cap, must have been 11, swam with me thw hole way. As much as I fought to lose him with my Popeye-the-Sailor forearm thrusts, he stayed on my hip for the swim's duration. The vision was blurry and I could barely stand up as I exited. I was 5th old guy in that race.

And later on the same day, Emi and I swam the family race. Jake headed out ahead of the family, with Natalie and the flippered-Ben following on their noodles. Emi was rather mad and teary because the race was too far, and we had been abandoned by her siblings and precious mother. 600m's -it turns out - is really far for kids. And for dad's carrying their kids.

I propped the floating buoys under each arm and kicked for all I was worth. The further we swam the higher Emi perched herself on my neck causing me to arch my back and tilt my hips in order to kick. It must have taken us an hour to finish the swim. As hard as it was (and I would not recommend it for novice families) I couldn't help laughing. I motivated Emi from the word go, using every trick and ploy in my arsenal. I was the Tony Robbins of swimming.

But she wanted none of it. She kept calling out to the lifeguards to help her find her mommy. As though I was a pile of floating reeds onto which she had been jetissoned from a passing ship. At one stage she bawled and raged and grabbed my goggles forcing us to zig-zagged blind for a while.

I kept having to control my efforts as my breathing became ragged. The pull-buoys kept popping out. A flotilla of fellow families brought us into their fold and guided us around the course. It wasn't easy, in fact quite the contrary, but - and this is why I love that picture - it was certainly memorable. One of my most memorable daughter-dad moments.

So the point I guess I'm trying to make is that when you look back at the photos in your life, you might remember the Facebook good times, the Instagram'd ecstasies or the archived discomforts. However - and this is the crux of it - is it not both the good times and the times of suffering that help us get to the place on the road where we need to be?

On the road again,


  1. So true! Sometimes when I look at photos of myself when I knew someone was snapping away and I put on my happy face, i feel like a fake!

  2. As usual great article! You are an inspiration Robbie

  3. As usual great article! You are an inspiration Robbie