With a new day comes a new resolve and new beginnings, and the intense disappointment from Sunday is already fading slightly. Yes we finished well before cut-off, but I was really preparing and hoping for much better than that. Only the athletes among you will understand.
But we must move on, and the reason why I can do so with a happy heart is that our donor page shows that, together with the money that were paid into the SANCB’s direct bank account we have made our fund-raising target! Thank you so much to everybody that did their bit to make this happen.
And for those who really want the depressing detail of what happened at what could easily be called Ironman Katrina, read on but beware, it’s a good and propper pity party.
The Darkness Within
They say writing is a form of therapy, so I suppose I’d better start writing. Frustration, devastation, disappointment and yet, two days after the event the only outward signs I have to show for it are mildly stiff quads and sore knees. How is this possible? What went wrong?
I have been asked many times in the past whether I ever felt like quitting an Ironman race, and I could always honestly say I never did. Even this time it never crossed my mind, but the demon I faced instead was much worse. I experienced the hardship and the joy which is part of almost every Ironman experience, but this time it was in the reverse order and not at all like it should have happened.
We arrived in the Friendly City on the Thursday evening and were able to have a good night’s sleep before our first sea swim in beautiful calm waters on the Friday morning. As we were driving down to the beach we had the privilege of spotting a school of about 40 dolphins – a lucky omen, we thought. Our preparations went exceedingly well, and we even managed to squeeze in a short bike ride and a run in the two days leading up to Race Day.
As Sunday drew nearer, the weather grew steadily worse. I was a little nervous because of the weather, but more than that I was excited to see whether all the hard work in terms of training and eating rather healthily would pay off. I had never trained this hard before, and all indications were such that I could realistically expect a Personal Best. My guide Kevin is a much better runner, so I knew that if I could only get faster on the run we would already be guaranteed a better finish time.
When we left the guest house for the start at 5h30AM on Sunday morning it already started drizzling, and that would set the scene for much of the day. Despite all that, I felt great. We even had time for a short warm-up swim which made a huge difference at the swim start. You might well think it’s crazy to add to an already considerable 3.8km swim, but it really helps to get the blood to where it should go and to calm the pre-race nerves.
The sea was really choppy and the currents were making it difficult for the swimmers to stay on course. As Kevin and I were tethered, all I had to do was to follow him and to hope that he’s not going too far off course. I felt really strong throughout the swim and I remember thinking happy thoughts of gratitude to everybody who helped me get to this point. For the last two months I wanted to get to the Virgin Active pool twice a week to try to improve on my mediocre swimming, and I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for a few fellow triathletes in the area who offered to give me a ride to the gym.
The bike leg was no less demanding since by then the wind was gradually getting stronger. The bike course consists of three laps of 60km each, and I was so pleased to find at the beginning of lap three that I was not in the same excrutiating pain as on previous years. Long bike rides on Saturdays and interval sessions on cold weekday mornings seemed to be paying off, and every time we got off the seat to stretch I could immediately feel my muscles recovering, ready for another half hour at race pace. I decided to eat plenty so I won’t be exhausted by the time we start the run. If only I had paid as much attention to nutrition as I did to actual training. You don’t experiment with new foods on race day! Jels two years past their expiry date, and too much dried meat for protein – what was I thinking?
We decided before the race already that I would hold back on the last half hour of the bike leg so I would have something left to give on the run which is by far my weakest discipline. We stuck with the plan, sort of, but I really felt I could nail this, even with winds peaking at 50 km+ that sometimes kept us back to a crawl.
We started the run without incident and I was able to maintain a steady pace hovering around 9 km/h, more or less what I’m capable of maintaining over a long distance. The spectators were awesome and I felt bad that the writing somehow came off Kevin’s number so very few people were able to encourage him by name. They made us feel like we were busy breaking some world record – indescribable!
We weren’t even 10km into the run when my stomach started telling me I had been eating too much, and that’s when the stops started. The first time was okay, but then I started feeling nauseous and by the next aid station I decided in my infinite wisdom it’s probably best to empty my stomach both ways, and after that there was no conscious decision required to keep doing it every so often.
Meanwhile we had intermittent rain showers and the temperature dropped quite a bit. Poor Kevin got very cold waiting for me while I was emptying out months of training and nutrition in the smelly stalls, and when I eventually emerged I would start shaking like a leaf from the cold outside. We didn’t have any warm clothes waiting in the seconding area so all we had to keep us warm were the flimsy trisuits and the body heat that would have been generated if we were able to run at a decent pace, but of course I couldn’t.
With more than 15 km to go I was reduced to a slow walk, even though my legs were still in good condition and perfectly capable of much better. As we passed an ambulance Kevin was asking me whether we needed to stop and all I could get out was a “no”. In hindsight it was very selfish of me, because the longer we were out there the colder we got, and it was all because of my stubbornness, and the best I could hope for was that he would not decide to call it a day. I always knew we had plenty of time to finish, and I would finish no matter what, but I could not think of a way to keep warm while laying down until the nausea subsides. The only option for us was to trudge along, meter by meter. They say you must tackle big challenges like you would eat an elephant, bit by bit, but if I was going to take a bite of anything it would be back out in a second, so even that metaphor didn’t seem to go down well. Eventually Kevin said something that made me feel I finally had something to work with. It was somewhere along the lines of: “We don’t know how to solve this and to make the nausea go away, so the only thing we have some measure of control over is how long this is going to last”. And that’s how I managed to pick up the pace by a tiny bit to ensure we do the last 2km in twenty minutes and not forty!
At the finish line I was finished, literally. We finished well before the cut-off, but so what? I just needed to get warm and away. I remember asking to go to the medical tent, for I needed somebody to make the nausea go away. I felt like such a complete failure. How could I ask anyone to ever act as my guide again if I could throw months of training away in a matter of hours?
When I try to explain it to people they get upset, for “you at least completed something I would never dream of attempting”, but when you have set yourself a goal, no matter what it is, and you really believed you could achieve it, it is heart-breaking when it doesn’t happen. I will not bore you with the list of all the things that needed to be in place to get me to this relatively good form that I am in now. Suffice to say that I’m not sure I have the inner strength to go through all that again. The logistics, the money, the asking for favours, the dependencies and the Stoicism with which one has to deal with the many things that are out of your control takes more out of a person than what I have in reserve right now.
Monday was a day from hell, and I’m not even sure I managed to keep the same fixed smile in place while having to listen to members of my party explaining countless times why our finish time was so slow after an above average first half of the race.
The first time I finally saw a glimmer of light was during women’s champion Natascha Badmann’s interview at the awards ceremony on Monday night. Some years ago she suffered serious injury in a crash and was told that she would never race competitively again, and yet she made a conscious decision to try and try again until she came out on top. I don’t know whether it was my state of vulnerability, but she sounded so authentic and believable, and intuitively I knew that she has once been where I am now.
It is an unexpected surprise to realise that even when you’re at the lowest of your low, you can still relate to a champion while she is celebrating her achievement. Such is the miracle of Ironman, where the only time you say never is when you say “NEVER GIVE UP”.