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.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Amazing Robby! Won't you do it again just so we can read all about it.

  3. Thanks Dina! I'm never one to say never, but I'm sure I could do something else (a bit easier), write about that and maybe get away with it?! Ha ha ha.

  4. Inspirational account written by an inspirational person who once said "nobody cares about your time but you". But actually a lot of people do care but only you can do anything about it. And you did Roberto!

  5. inspirational! well done!

  6. Hey RobbyRicc, so enjoyed your post as I could relate to your story every step of the way, except 3hrs additional. so cool that you named the laps after your family and they were your tonic to get through. Well done, you defintely leave the red carpet with a shout

    1. Thanks a lot! Well done to you on your race and getting the job done. (Someone once told me, it always hurts about the same, so you might as well go faster! Maybe something for your next race?!) ;o)

  7. Thanks a stack Bill! Looking back I find it so interesting how we react when we race against time instead of competitors. Either way, it's always an excuse to go faster and if it works who are we to judge? ;o)