Race Report - Ironman South Africa 2016

It’s hard to describe the feeling you get while standing on Hobie beach waiting for the cannon fire. It’s a combination of fear, excitement and confusion. Fear of the unknown, 226km of unknown. Excitement because after months and months of training you finally have that sand between your toes and it’s time to race and a bit of confusion as to why my training partner Matthew had decided to pee in his wetsuit before getting into the water.


The strategy for this year, which I had discussed with Glen, was to have a steady swim, steady bike and then try smash the run. Unfortunately, Ironman is not something you can plan perfectly and sometimes you have to adapt and go with the flow.


Swim – 3.8km


So I hacked the swim… AGAIN. I probably started off too easy this year. I got into a comfortable rhythm and just followed the crowd.  When I turned at the halfway mark I had already done 2.2km and I had 41min on the clock. I decided to pick up the pace a bit coming back but by this time the swells had picked up and it was getting pretty choppy.

At roughly the 3km mark I felt a sharp stinging sensation on my face and right foot. I had obviously swum into a blue bottle as there were reports of them being on the beach the previous day. It hurt, but what exactly can you do, you’re in the middle of the ocean, you just keep swimming.   

I came out the water feeling pretty fresh but with a time of 1h19. My watch was showing a distance of 4.35km. I later heard that just about everyone had 4.1 - 4.4km recorded for the swim. Not sure if Ironman just got the distance wrong or if the swells and chop pushed people around a lot. I had a good swim to bike transition and now I could relax and start the real race.


Bike – 180km


It’s always very tough to hold back in the first 30min of the bike while your adrenaline is pumping, but I made a concerted effort to try.


My plan was to ride at +-210watts for the full bike course which is 70% of my functional threshold power. I was around this number for the first 30min and then I hit my first speed bump. Literally, not figuratively. I went over a speed bump and the impact loosened my handle bars and tilted them downwards. This knocked my power meter out of sync as it is fixed to the handle bars. I had to physically pull the handle bars back up to get them into the correct position. Every speed bump or bump that I hit thereafter would push the bars down a bit. It meant that the power meter had to continuously recalibrate and so was giving me some crazy readings. I guess this is why it is better to have a hub or crank based meter. I tried to ride to feel as much as I could and when the power meter was functioning I kept things between 60 -75%. The heat started to pick up during the ride but every now and again we would get a cool breeze coming off the ocean which was a relief.

The scenery on this course is pretty spectacular and I tried to take it in as much as possible.

Personally I’ m a big fan of the new course and I don’t feel that it caused more congestion or drafting. The guys around me were pretty good with the drafting rule and there was only one occasion where I saw a referee having to ask cyclists to give space. My opinion is that they should keep the bike course like this. The bike course is probably a bit quicker however it is draining. Due to the flat course you are working all the time and there is not much opportunity to freewheel and recover. I would say that this course is probably 10min faster than the old course for age groupers but didn’t seem to make a big difference for the pros. To put in into perspective, in 2015 the winner Fredrik Van Lierde biked a 4h32 and this year’s winner Ben Hofmann had a 4h29.


After the turn on the 2nd lap at about 125km I started to get “hot foot”. Hot foot occurs when there is a large amount of pressure placed on the front ball of the foot. This causes a burning sensation in the front part of your foot and toes. It’s like having a hot iron held against your skin. I loosened the straps on both my shoes which did help a bit with circulation but I would have to just deal with it for the rest of the ride.


I was feeling strong in the last 30km of the bike and so pushed a little harder. This is definitely the best bike I have had at Ironman with a time of 5h44m. I was feeling very positive going into T2 (bike to run).


Run - 42km


I had a good transition but made an error with my nutrition at this point. My nutrition leading up to T2 had been perfect. I had consumed 2 endurashakes (High Carb/High Protein shakes), one at Transition 1 and one at 90km on the bike. The error was that I decided to inhale the endurashake in Transition 2 rather than take it on the run and sip it slowly over the first 15min. This made me feel very nauseous heading out onto the run.


And then it got hot!!!!! I’m talking serious heat, like frying an egg on a bonnet hot.  Apparently the temperature hit 33 degrees. The ice cold water sponges were life savers. At every water point I was placing 2 sponges under my top on my chest and would ring 2 over my head to try cool down.


I started at a solid pace and managed to run the first 10.5km lap, in 51m54s a pace of 4:57min/km. Although I was still moving at a decent pace I was not comfortable and still felt very nauseous but was hoping to still find a rhythm. This nausea was exacerbated by the smell of deep fried KFC and portable toilets coming from a few spots on the course.


Then the muscles started to ache. My quads, lower back and abs started to tighten up. This is when I knew I was in for a tough day. I had entered the “Pain Cave” and there was no way out.


I began to adapt my strategy for  survival. I would try hold a sub 5min/km pace and then walk through every water point. The only thing that was keeping me going was knowing it was only a few more Km’s to the next walk, ice cold sponges and coke.

I just kept ticking off the Km’s. The 2nd 10.5km I managed to hold 5.06min/km and came through with a half marathon time of 1h46. Somehow I was still holding it together.


Whooah, we’re half way there…..Whooah, Livin’ on a prayer – Bon Jovi


At this point my prayers were directed at anyone that would listen.


I ran the next 10.5km at 5.18min/km but I was on fumes by this stage. The exhaustion had kicked in. I was onto the last lap and I knew that if I could hold it together I had less than an hour of running left which meant less than an hour of pain left.

I have to apologize to my supporters and my training partners who were out there.  I was in such a dark place that I was barely able to communicate with them. Just know that your words of encouragement did help and if you weren’t there I would have definitely pulled back the pace or walked a lot more.

The last 10 is when you start to count down the Km’s. I like to compare it to my weekly training run, this way I say to myself: “only a 8km Melrose time trial left” or "only a 6km interval set" left and then visualize myself on that run.

Usually I get a spring in my step in the last 4-5km but this year I had nothing left. When I hit that home straight it was pure relief.

I had gone deeper into the pain cave than ever before and I had survived. I finished the marathon in 3h39m42s and a total time of 10h52m07 which was a personal best. I was an Ironman.

Mandy -Lee has been the most incredibly supportive wife. It is not easy being an “Ironman Widow”. You have to put up with early mornings, grumpy moods and  10pm bedtimes.

Seeing her every couple of Km’s on the course made me push through the pain because I didn’t want to disappoint her.

Thank you for being there for me along the way. I truly appreciate the sacrifice you make to allow me to pursue this passion.

My parents also came down to support for the third year in a row and it’s just so special to have them there cheering me on, and having my dad shout my splits to me along the way.

My training partners who were doing their first Ironman all had great days and should be proud.

Matt Kassel – surprised me and I think even himself. He came through in 11h28m. His focus and commitment over the last 6 months is evident from this time.
John Behr – His lead up in the last 6 weeks was far from ideal (we can discuss Behr’s training methods over a beer) but by pure grit and determination he managed to come in just under 13hours which is a great accomplishment.
Adam Flekser – As expected, Flekser smashed the course and even after having stomach issues on the bike still managed a 11h10m which is phenomenal for a first effort.

The volunteers that come out to man the water tables make Ironman South Africa a special race. They work non-stop throughout the day handing out drinks and food with smiles on their faces and provide words of encouragement to athletes in their darkest moments. Thank you for the incredible contribution that you make to the race.

If you have done an Ironman event, whether it's a 5150, 70.3 or full you will know that you don't get better organization in this game. From the expo, to the registrations, right through to the finish; everything just works. That doesn't just happen, it is only achieved by hours of meticulous preparation and hard work. It’s not the cheapest event to participate in but the experience is worth every cent. Well done Paul Wolff on another brilliant event.

So am I going to do it again next year???

Well I’m not entering just yet, but after the memory fades a bit in the next couple of months I’m sure it will seem like a good idea.

The thing that keeps drawing me back is how this race always manages to take you to a place that you never thought you could go. To endure that amount on suffering and still succeed gives one a feeling of accomplishment that nothing can compare to.