Written By Warrick Kernes
As if it wasn’t daunting enough for a novice to take part in the Iron Man 70.3, the 2014 triathlon took place in Buffalo City - rated one of the most difficult courses in the world! Alongside the athletes starting to arrive in East London days before the race, a mix of nerves came along and slowly evolved into either anxiety, utter fear or unrivalled excitement. Before allowing the nerves to take control we needed to keep reminding ourselves that we had six months of solid training behind us (yes, throughout the holiday season) and were thankfully injury free and feeling great.
It seems that all the athletes had the exact same idea when arriving in Buffalo City: 1) get to registration 2) swing pass the very tiny expo 3) and most importantly - get into the water for a practice swim. As the hordes steadily arrived at the beach it seemed as if we all, once again, were doing the same thing - staring out at the marker buoys trying to convince ourselves that we wouldn't really be swimming this far out on race day. The practice swim ended up being a breeze - flat waters, no currents and it was not too cold, which settled a lot of the nerves. However, we walked away that exact moment fully understanding how far out into the ocean we were going to have to swim on the big day – it’s quite a stretch!
The next few days leading up to race day flew past - we attended the insightful race briefing, hunted for any half decent restaurant with a free table and prepped our race bags (continuously unpacking them and starting over, thinking we might have left something out). The one incredibly noticeable thing about this race compared to others is the meticulous organisation of everything. When we had to drop off our bikes on the Saturday things went like clockwork with dedicated volunteers showing us exactly where our bikes and bags were to be racked. We were in and out of there in no time at all. The organisation of this race contributes a lot to the cost of the athletes' entry fee but it really does make it so worthwhile.
The day finally arrived! On race day we had an early breaky at our B&B before heading down for final touch-ups to the bikes and to mentally prep ourselves for the long day ahead. Before we knew it - the waiting was over and we were on the beach in the starting pen watching the pros swim off in front of us. As we were racing in the 25 - 29 category we were joined by the elite racers from all the other age groups which made for an interesting start - they didn't hold back one bit when the starting gun went off!
The water was crowded with serious athletes willing to push and shove to keep their line so we had to do the same while still trying to stay on course. The first buoy is only 300m off shore before the long haul over 700m out into the ocean to the farthest buoy. Unfortunately, my ability to swim straight once again proved to be non-existent as I zig-zagged my way out to the turn around and then continued to zig-zag back around the final buoys and back towards the beach. The thing with open-water swimming is that you often feel like you're never going to finish and then all of a sudden - you're there. Ocean swimming is great in the way that you start to see the fathoms below you lighten in colour before turning to a light brown as you make out the sandy bed below and THIS is when you know that you're home free. I was glad to exit the water and get across the timing mat in 31:37 minutes and just kept thinking to myself how well I would have done if I only swam straight!
A quick 4min22 transition saw me fly out on the bike feeling good and strong. The first couple of hills while getting out onto the highway went well as I let my body catch up and realise that we're now out of the water and heading out on a 90km cycle. Incredibly I felt stronger than ever before and I was finding it easy to keep up with the athletes around me who were all a lot more professional than me (I must say that it feels great to pass guys on really expensive bikes and aero helmets!) but my elations were short-lived as I failed to pull back fast enough when passed - resulting in a black card which meant I would have to spend 4 minutes in the sin bin at the turn around point. This is the last thing any competitor wants but I decided to use it to my advantage so I pushed even harder than before knowing that I would get a much needed rest at the 45km turn around.
Four minutes in the sin bin weren't as bad as I thought as I had a chance to stretch my sore muscles, top up on my nutrition and cool off my body temp in the shade. Once released back onto the road I suddenly realised the big negative of taking a 4 minute break - my legs had gone cold and it took me a further 10 or 15 minutes of riding before I felt anything like I had before stopping. Regardless of this I knew that I was on the home stretch of the bike leg and the return trip is more downhill than the way out so I kept high spirits and pushed on. As with most endurance races I find it helpful to pick someone who is a little stronger than me and set them as my marker so that I never let them out of my sight. In this case it was one of the international professional ladies who was keeping up a good average speed so I made sure I kept up but I was very sure not to be close enough to even look like I was drafting as a second black card would have seen me DQ'ed from the race!
Riding back into East London and down to the promenade reminded me of what I had been told leading up to the race; that the spectators really do carry you through the final stages. They were everywhere and even a couple of people deep in the crowd in some sections and all screaming and cheering each and every athlete past. This gave me a massive lift as I entered transition 2 after 3hrs07 on the bike and once again had a really nice quick change into my running gear. I came out of transition and was immediately lifted back onto a high from the mass of crowds who were now cheering about the fact that I was smothered white with sun block from the volunteers!
The run route is a hard one but a great course for any run. A double lapper sent us first out onto the peer to circle the light house before coming back past the start beach and running past the red carpeted finish line. As I passed this point the leading man sprinted up and crossed the line in a killer 4hrs05 which didn't make me feel any better but I turned this around by imagining that all the crowds cheering for him were actually cheering for me. The run then continued out along the promenade to the bottom of the dreaded 600m Bunkers Hill and then to the turn around point and then back again for a 2nd lap
I felt strong on the run and I knew that a mate of mine was a few minutes ahead of me so I was pushing harder than I felt was possible and I knew I was catching him slowly but surely.My heart sank though as I saw he had gained a little on me between the 10 and 15k marks which lead me to shamefully give in to the exhaustion and walk and when I started walking I just couldn't get going again. I must have walked a good 400m before the crowds got me going with a mixture of motivating and taunting comments. I felt terrible about giving up and walking - especially as I later found out that my mate had cramped and expected me to pass him easily. On my return trip I quickly did a calculation on the time and worked out that if I thumped the last 3k's then I could have possibly slipped in under 2hrs for the half marathon. And so I opened up the throttle and kept up a solid 4min/km pace along the entire promenade while I had to shout ahead for other athletes to move out of my way as my legs were only carrying me forward and had lost the ability to move left or right. I think other runners thought I was mad as I shouted "out of the way" while in an almost sprint. Luckily my calculation was right and I approached the red carpet with 1hr59mins on the run leg and with a total time of 5hrs45mins since entering into the water that morning.
Running up the ramp and across the line felt absolutely fantastic and stirred up so many incredible emotions! WHAT A RUSH!!!
After the big day it has not been hard to realise why this sport is so addictive as I've found myself wondering so many times what time I could have done if I trained harder, had a better bike, didn't get black -carded! or kept my head stronger in the run. As with so many other ultra-races, I will be back!