Wild Wild Best

“Don’t expect best time but expect the best views”, was announced at the race briefing for the Ironman South Africa in Port Elizabeth. The so called windy city and its long distance triathlon race are one of the toughest on the circuit. Choppy waters, strong winds and hills await the athletes on the course sections but you are motivated by the heartwarming South African spectators that are clapping and cheering you on, in conjunction with a great views and beautiful coastal landscape. So, why not race and enjoy this long standing Ironman race? The race organization is superb – 100% professionalism guaranteed.

Emirates takes it all
The usual suspect airline is Emirates. If you travel from Europe or the Middle East – Dubai is the central hub to fly down via Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. Bike boxes arrive safely while the athlete is enjoying nice treat in the cabin of the Emirates plane. When booking, ensure you announce your bike box to the operator, and then no extra fee will be charged. Usually the connection in Johannesburg is via South African Airline. But it is code sharing to Port Elizabeth – in short “PE”. The airport lounges in Jo’ burg provide you with the carbo load you are looking for the race. On the return trip home you can enjoy a few well deserved beers for cheers.

The place to be and to stay
The accommodation to book is “Sunport 1’. Together with my Saudi Triathlon friend, Mo, we joined that little, cozy place. Sharing is cost caring. The spot was just 2 kilometers away from the swim start and the Ironman exhibition. The special deal: It was directly next to a bike shop with a charming café. You can have your bike mounted and fixed for the race while having breakfast – great stuff! A supermarket, a pizza restaurant, and a bar were less than 100 meters away. Even with all these facilities the nights were calm and sleep was guaranteed. One of the best race accommodations I have ever stayed. All you need was there.

Chop chop hurray
Race briefing: Not the typical blah blah with transition, passing, drafting and so on. This time one information special came extra: 3 different options for swim adjustments: Cancelling completely, Shortage for all, or only shortage for the age groupers. Apparently so they made windy experiences in the past and the swim could be too dangerous for some athletes. However we will see. Forecast for PE: Windy as usual. And so it comes: 30 minutes before race start in the morning they announced the reduction to 1600 meters. Lots of people were disappointed. Not a real full iron distance today. Especially the first timers didn’t like that decision. However even in that choppy water conditions you need to fight. And some athletes fought they last battle. The conditions were very rough. 2 people died unluckily, lots of people dropped out. My triathlon buddy Mo managed the swim as it was pretty flat – swim business as usual. For me all things went wrong: Seasickness lead to disorientation, dizziness and forced me to swim breast stroke to see the horizon and to breathe calmly. I had learned it once I was on a cruise to Antarctica from Argentina riding 2 days through the Drake Passage. But with a neoprene breast stroke is not fun: The legs hang flying at the water surface due to better bouncy. The grip got lost. In addition the wet suit zip broke and the back was open. And if that was all not the worst one of the co-athletes in the water hit me by mistake on my ear. Days after the race the pain wasn’t gone and my ENT doctor recognized still a damaged ear drum with rest of blood. However my focus in this toughest swim of all my Ironman races was just the next yellow buoy. It was like the light at the end of the tunnel. In my mind: I will not quit. I will not give up. Either they pull me out of the water due to cut off time. But I will never surrender. Next back up plan after switching from front crawl to breast stroke: Resting at one of the safety boats. But we were not at this point yet.

Spitting but not quitting
Remember when you had the worst party night and you could not hold the straight line forward. Yeah. I think I never had any of these experiences until I came out of the water on that day. I saw the audience, the gate, and I was happy but couldn’t walk straight. I had to stop to sit down and had to puke. OMG! So many people, cameras there as well. What a shame. But in moments of crisis – you don’t give a shit. You rather give a puke. A motion sick man has to do what he has to do. Immediately Ironman staff came and asked if I do need help. Directly I wanted to know if I take help the race would be over for me, because I wanted to continue. I knew: I could maybe recover with medication or whatever and I still have cut off time 15-16 hours left. Never quitting, never giving up. The race continued. The race doctor confirmed that the motion sickness will last a bit but will pass. At the beginning no food just water as an intake. Ha – the nutrition plan of the day spoilt right away. I didn’t think of any time to beat anymore on this day. Just to finish. At least to finish my longest Transition time ever – nearly 30 minutes.

Bike coastal chase
The first hour on the bike was very lonely. In fact I didn’t know if I was on the right track. No one was in front of me. In fact I was one of the last people out of the water that finished the race overall. Start: 2000. Finish: 1700. But that I only got in the results days after. Now blue sky, light tail wind, energy still low, but out of water and dizziness slowly went away. 1600 meters to climb, wind to come after 3-4 hours, some nice hills and steep descent – but always at sight the white beaches, the beautiful waves and the blue sky. And monkeys from left, weasel from right? What? Yes! Correct. Like in Ironman Langkawi, Malaysia there were monkeys watching the cyclists. Did they wave even? No, no! That was the lack of water and my stupid mind I guess. But definitely a little weasel crossed just a meter in front of me. I didn’t see that coming. Luckily for both of us we didn’t meet. At the end the wind picked up and I lost too much time. Out of all 7 Ironman worst bike split ever. But enough power left to run the last 42 km to the end. I still dreamed about a day light finish. But we will see.

Cheers and beers on the run
Finally on the run: 4 laps, all in parallel to the coastal road. Right and left of the running track the local community cheered the runners up till the last man and woman running deep in the night. Lots of them had prepared little BBQ with beers – As longer the run went on, as more drunk but funnier the crowd became. High fives from adults and kids pushed each athlete a bit more. On my first 5 kilometers I spotted Saudi friend Mo looking strong. At that point I guessed he must be around 2 hours in ahead of, considering a normal swim and his first timer motivational backed bike split. On each loop we spotted each other twice, gave ‘high fives’ and the typical: “Push it baby!” It’s nice to race with people you know. Even at the far side of the world you feel the comfort of being home. Sharing the pain is half the pain. Sharing the glory is double the glory. Especially when the race is over. Then you can celebrate together.

You are an Ironman
On the finish line: “You are an Ironman” – I heard that already several times. But it is always heartwarming telling you that you are done for today. Mo was waiting at the finish line. We went for the typical after race treatments: Finisher Medal, T-Shirt, Burgers, Ice cream, Pizza, Bike pick up, hotel. For me extra: Dismounting the bike, packing my luggage since next morning flying back home to the office. Quick recap while packing and energy fueling: Mo finished in fantastic 11 hours something in daylight, while I had more than 2 hours later for arrival. He was very happy. Next goal for him: Ironman Barcelona in ½ a year to be even faster. And for me? At the end I finished in my 3rd fastest run split on Ironman distance races. Overall: I was happy to have survived the swim, but I was totally disappointed about the bike split. However – No muscle pain on that day or in the next days. If you don’t have pain you didn’t push it hard enough, I guess. I felt I could do another race the next day. I felt pretty fresh. It is a good lesson learnt for upcoming multi day races – keep the intensity low to race day by day without injury. That was my take away from that race. Plus: Normal Ironman number 7 done. Ironman on African continent done. Only North- and South America to do in November (IM Cozumel) and December (IM Argentina) 2019. So I will have completed a full Ironman on each continent. Let’s do this.
Thomas Brackmann